Saturday, August 08, 2015

The World is (Still) a Vampire: Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson Deliver Powerful Doubleheader on Chicago's Lakefront -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Smashing Pumpkins
and Marilyn Manson (co-headliner)
w/ Gage (opening act)
FirstMerit Bank Pavilion
at Northerly Island, Chicago
August 7, 2015
(for Pumpkins and full show)

Unlike at several past Smashing Pumpkins shows--and this was my 26th time seeing the band or its lead singer/songwriter in various incarnations--Billy Corgan did nothing particularly perplexing Friday night.

There was no preponderance of esoteric and/or challenging songs, not shortchanging of the hits, no meandering instrumental explorations, no lengthy harangues or petulant rejoinders.

And as opposed to the Pumpkins' current tourmates on the End Times Tour, Marilyn Manson--whose namesake leader burned a bible, smeared an American flag across his face and engaged in various other dated demagoguery in a 75-minute set otherwise satisfying enough to a non-fan--there weren't any overt theatrics in a 90-minute hometown gig that I found highly enjoyable if not quite sublimely smashing.

I really wish that I could impart that the Smashing Pumpkins delivered an absolutely phenomenal @@@@@ performance on a beautiful night at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion in Chicago. Some friends think they did and, as a longtime SP fan, I appreciate their avid affinity and wish I fully shared it.

But please make no mistake, this isn't meant as a negative review. Quite the opposite in fact, as for approx. $30 I got a pretty strong night of entertainment from Marilyn Manson and the Smashing Pumpkins (plus an opening act called Gage that I didn't much care for) while in the company of a good friend and encountering several others at the show.

Having Spotifamiliarized myself with what Marilyn Manson would be playing (in lieu of much pre-existing awareness), I thought the man christened Brian Warner and his band were pretty entertaining, despite the incongruity of taking the stage to Satanic messages while the sun was still shining and vendors hawked oversized daquiris.

From the stage, Marilyn Manson--the man--quickly commented on the daylight and the "birds and shit" before powering through a song called "Disposable Teens."

I have fair respect for the character Warner created--who at one point became a rather laughable lightning rod for all that was supposedly wrong with American youth culture--but between his made-up face and the alternative/industrial hybrid of his music, I couldn't help note that Marilyn Manson is essentially a melding of Nine Inch Nails and Alice Cooper, whose act has also been substantively imbued by Pink Floyd's The Wall imagery and movie.

With set pieces that reminded more of Spinal Tap than anything truly deranged or dangerous, the dubious originality and import of the now middle-aged Manson was exacerbated by his two best songs of the night being covers, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by The Eurythmics and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus."

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that Marilyn Manson didn't rock forcefully, and as a visual showcase their set was actually superior to that of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Nonetheless, I was positively enthralled when--with original drummer Jimmy Chamberlain back in the fold--the Pumpkins took the stage at 9:30pm and promptly launched into three of their best songs: "Cherub Rock," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and "Tonight Tonight," whose "city by the lake" lyric brought chills given the lakefront location of the venue.

It was a pretty great way to begin, and I was delighted to see the Pumpkins again playing to a robust crowd in Chicago.

Initially, due in part to my limited height, I had trouble seeing the band, and the sound seemed a bit soft as well. I soon moved to a seat that let me sit through the show, view the band perfectly and enjoy better--if still not perfect--acoustics.

As such, I really have nothing to complain about, and enjoyed how Corgan wove in new songs like "Drum + Fife" and "One and All (We Are)" with Pumpkins classics such as "Zero," "Mayonaise," "Disarm" and "1979." It was also truly a treat to hear Chamberlain on drums again.

But perhaps in deference to how strong the set started, I didn't feel the Pumpkins show got any better than it began, with the other true highlights coming at the end with blasts through "United States"--featuring a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Jim Cornelison of Blackhawks fame, a special moment somewhat muted by the ongoing Patrick Kane investigation--and a triumphant if rushed (due to curfew) encore of "Today."

So there were certainly many wonderful moments, and at age 48 Corgan's voice remains a unique and powerful instrument, even as some of the other instrumentation sounded a bit off and uneven acoustics dampened Chamberlain's power from where I sat.

Thus, unlike other Pumpkins shows I've seen, this isn't an angry or particularly disappointed @@@@ (out of 5) concert that had any obvious detractions.

There just wasn't enough that made it feel transcendent, even despite the type of setlist I've been longing for and Corgan being on his best behavior. (His most notable comments from the stage were quite gracious. "I don't always do a good job showing it, but I do appreciate all the love you've shown me," he shared while noting that further pontification might get him in trouble.)

Jim Cornelison onstage with the Smashing Pumpkins
It's certainly possible that in playing the hits--albeit with deep cuts like "The Crying Tree of Mercury" and a less than ideally-placed new song, "Run2Me"--in the same order as on the rest of this generally well-reviewed tour, Corgan and the Pumpkins (Jeff Schroeder on guitar with an unknown male bassist, the supply of women bass players having finally been seemingly exhausted) felt a bit too by-the-book and maybe even disingenuously genteel.

Or, in other words, edgeless. 

Truth be told, as much as I had anticipated a glorious return to the full--if not original--Pumpkins experience, I believe I enjoyed last summer's solo Corgan concert at Ravinia (with Schroeder's occasional accompaniment) a good bit more, not only for its sense of surprise but as a showcase of Corgan's vast songwriting gifts.

Though not for exasperating reasons, this was yet another Smashing Pumpkins concert that wasn't quite as good as I wanted it to be, even if I was fully glad to be there and enjoyed myself far more than not.

As much as I love the best of--and another large breadth of--the Pumpkins' material, I have never found them to be an astonishing live band on par with '90s alt-rock contemporaries Pearl Jam, or more lately, Arcade Fire.

And as much as the band and music have meant to me--I recently ranked them #12 on My 100 All-Time Favorite Artists of Popular Music list--I don't think I'd mind if William Corgan truly moves onto something new. I think it may be time, and have been glad to note his recent interest in writing for musical theater.

20 years after the release of their commercial and creative high-water mark, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness--though Siamese Dream could also be argued--the Smashing Pumpkins showed once again that their terrific music still has great staying power.

Even if it wasn't properly amplified, or amazingly exciting, anew.

See the setlist for the Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion in Chicago on
And here's a clip of "Today" I found on YouTube, posted by Audiofyl: 

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