Few possess Billy Corgan’s gift for conveying angst, affection, wistfulness and wicked grandiosity with song, and at Smashing Pumpkins’ sold-out Forum shows Thursday and Friday, he gave us all of this and more. Still, the audacious, arrogant expression that makes the Pumpkins so provocative onstage and on record can be off-putting at times, and they often tread a very fine line between heart-full performance and heady pomposity.
Interviews with Corgan over the years reveal that he can be both sincere and self-important, and for longtime fans like me, this duality hasn’t done too much to taint appreciation of the music, on record at least. Live, however, I’ve seen the singer be un-engaging just because he was in a bad mood and downright pissy when it wasn't really called for (like the time he walked offstage at the Viper Room because the club was too noisy).
When the Pumpkins' first album, Gish, came out, their individual personae were not as prevalent or obvious as they came to be with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Their videos were always arty endeavors, but with more success came bigger budgets, which wasn’t always for the best. Back in 1991, Gish was the soundtrack to my young-adult life, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s BadMotorfinger.
I loved the heavy guitars of the grunge bands but what really beguiled me and my friends about Smashing Pumpkins was the music’s atmospheric quality. Songs like “Rhinoceros,” “Crush” and “My Daydream,” to name a few faves, were so melodious they evoked magic, and the instrumentation remained lush and beautiful no matter how fast, loud or heavy things got. Thursday, they only played the first aforementioned, but they did give us another Gish kiss with “Siva.” Even more appreciated, they pulled out the dark-love lament of “Drown,” first heard on the soundtrack to the Gen-X rom-com Singles.
Siamese and Mellon made up the bulk of the set list; as this Shiny and Oh So Bright tour was touted as a reunion, I don't think anyone expected less. There's been well-documented drama between bandmates over the years, and drug problems too, so when the tour featuring the original Pumpkins lineup was announced, there was a lot of excitement. Guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin returned but, as has been widely publicized, bassist D’arcy Wretzky did not. Iha got his solo moment (it was boring) while Chamberlin proved his blows were always a big part of the Pumpkins’ bombast — and, despite his own struggles in the past, they still are. Corgan got to be godlike (shocker), both on the huge, paneled LED screens behind the band and in the flesh, with costume changes that included a weird metallic half-skirt/half-pant thing, a cloak and an all-white fedora look (seriously).
I don’t know who’s telling the truth about D’arcy’s exclusion from the tour (she says Corgan left her out; he says she bowed out), but I must admit she was missed by this old fan. She was a solid bass player and, maybe more importantly, she broke up all the attention-whorish dude vibes. Not to say that just any female could have taken her place, either (that’s the problem with the new Pixies). D’arcy was an original Pumpkin; as such, her presence would have been about evoking the nostalgic chemistry fans remember.
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In fairness to Corgan, he made up for the absence in many ways. The videos shown behind him were mesmerizing when they weren't all about him (or didn't feature Mark McGrath as a scary ringleader in makeup). In fact, there was a lot of stunning female energy. Directed by L.A. artist Linda Strawberry, the visuals featured whimsical ballet dancers, saintlike beauties, intricate animation, and photographs and videos that showed the entire band throughout their career.
The show also included some truly inspired covers: their popular version of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," as well as a dramatic take on David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and a strange but spontaneous-feeling rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"! Big songs for a big band with big heads but also big talent to back it up. It was an epic three-hour-plus set, but they shined for most of it. When Corgan is in the groove and being worshipped as he was last week, he'll sweat and bleed till drained, and in that moment — just as he sings on "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" — the world (the audience) is a vampire.
Smashing Pumpkins just announced a performance in the HD Radio Sound Space at KROQ in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 13. The show is in celebration of the band’s latest single, "Solara," and the current tour and will be broadcast on a replay basis on KROQ’s HD Radio 2 channel on Friday, September 14 at 5 p.m. PT.