Live Last Night: Smashing Pumpkins

freak usaFreak U.S.A. (All Photos by Kyle "Leafblower" Gustafson)

It's without any exaggeration at all that I say that last July's Smashing Pumpkins performance at the 9:30 club was one of the worst concerts I've ever seen. So I went into last night's show at Constitution Hall with decidedly low expectations, which can sometimes actually make for a good evening. But when I left the "concert venue" (that's the best I can say of DAR) I was more confused than anything else.

What exactly is Billy Corgan trying to accomplish these days? (And also, WHAT IS HE WEARING?!?!) This current tour is billed as a 20th Anniversary Tour for the Smashing Pumpkins. Nevermind the fact that Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin are the only original members of the band still around. Guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy have been replaced, somewhat amusingly and I'd have to think not accidentally, with people who look strikingly similar to the departed originals. (I've taken to calling them James Fake-ha and F'arcy.) But the Pumpkins have always been a dictatorship, so it's easy enough to look beyond that. So a 20th Anniversary Tour means this will be a nostalgic look back at the band's catalog, hitting all those pre-1995 highpoints, right?

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Not really. "Siva" was the only song we heard from the band's first album, "Gish," and it seemed like nothing more than a token inclusion. Corgan and Co. raced through it, speeding up only to take their sweet time during the shapeless jam portions. (This would be a continuing theme for the evening, unfortunately.) There were only two songs from "Siamese Dream," the band's 1993 breakthrough and unquestioned high point. One of those songs was "Today," which was fully expected. (This was the first song after a surprisingly decent three-song acoustic set, during which most of audience sat down. After hearing those unmistakable first few notes everyone jumped to their feet and Corgan immediately stopped the song and said, "You can't just leap to your feet in some sort of sentimental orgasm!" It was actually pretty funny.) The other "Siamese Dream" selection was "Mayonaise," which sounded spectacular. I'm not always a fan of bands living off past glories, but the point is to play the songs that sound the most vital. And "Mayonaise" still sounded incredibly vital, while the newer stuff simply lacks any sort of punch.

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So what we were left with was a bunch of strange filler and pointless jams. There's something to be said for playing the songs you want to play, but does Corgan really think that anyone in the not-sold-out crowd wanted to hear "Machina"-era songs like "Speed Kills" and "Glass"? A friend who is a longtime Pumpkins fan said to me this morning: "It seems as though he's deliberately picking obscure songs - but not obscure songs that people ever liked." I'll admit that I didn't mind hearing "Transformer" -- it sounds like a Tubeway Army b-side, which is fine by me. It was just nice to hear a guitar-based rock song. Even the bizarre opener, "Everybody Come Clap Your Hands," (the only song during which Corgan wore that bizarre outfit you see) wasn't too bad because it was an actual song. Imagine Corgan singing a jaunty, almost girl-group tune. Now imagine it not being terrible. There you have it.

But excruciating was the only word to describe the full hour that was devoted to aimless jams. The first came during "United States," and not even Corgan playing the "Star Spangled Banner" with his teeth could salvage that. In my notes I wrote, "Wait, is this still the same song?" Every time it seemed to be over, it just kept going. There were more false endings than in my last relationship. The point of no return was "Heavy Metal Machine," which has become a Pumpkins staple for some unknown reason. If only the performance lived up to the song's name; 20 minutes of screaming solos and chugging power chords would be welcome. But it was just meandering noise. Some humor points were awarded for the moments when Corgan screamed, and it was revealed he might be somehow related to Batboy. Then there was the set-closing Pink Floyd cover, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." Two giant timpanis were brought out for this one, and the song descended into some bizarre Cirque du Soleil-type performance piece where Corgan walked around the stage and occasionally pounded on the drums.

There was an encore (featuring lots of kazoos -- no, really) but it was interrupted by a heckler. "You guys used to rock!" he shouted. "Now you're just corny!" Confusing would really be more accurate. Were you there? Do you share in my befuddlement?

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(More pics after the jump, including shots of Fake-ha and F'arcy!)

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By David Malitz |  November 12, 2008; 4:42 PM ET Live Last Night
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Comments

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They may play more of the older less obscure stuff for tonight's show since it's apparently a totally different set list.

Posted by: EricS2 | November 12, 2008 6:43 PM

I wonder if the highly competent musicians who have done nothing but work their tails off with the Pumpkins make up pseudo-clever derogatory names for you. If they do so, it's probably in their spare time -- hard to believe that Corgan would pay them to do it, as it doesn't help sell concert tickets. Easy to believe WaPo pays you for it, though -- over-the-top jackassery does sell papers (or in your case, grocery-store banner ads).

Posted by: jayjaybee | November 13, 2008 1:03 AM

I wonder if the highly competent musicians who have done nothing but work their tails off with the Pumpkins make up pseudo-clever derogatory names for you. If they do so, it's probably in their spare time -- hard to believe that Corgan would pay them to do it, as it doesn't help sell concert tickets. Easy to believe WaPo pays you for it, though -- over-the-top jackassery does sell papers (or in your case, grocery-store banner ads).

Posted by: jayjaybee | November 13, 2008 1:06 AM

Why isn't Malitz writing for Pitchfork? I have no idea what he means by "Transformer" sounding like a Tubeway Army b-side. I think there are about a total of three people reading this that would get the reference.

Posted by: Handsome_John_Pruitt | November 13, 2008 10:23 AM

Tubaway Army = Gary Numan = "Cars". Most people have heard the song cars. A good comparson, actually.

And a agreed on Heavy Metal Machine. I know they've messed with it live before, but at this point it just sounds like an awful mess.

Malitz, you also forgot to mention the part where the band went almost sorta ska (although without Jimmy Really changing the beat) and Billy's "interpretation" of Geek USA. Also last night's show features an all percussion song.

The real question Malitz, and not to be antagonistic, but why do you keep seeing them? It would be like me seeing Bright Eyes four or five times, hoping that somehow I'd like them. Conor's schtick doesn't do it for me at all (but I really like Okkervil River, go figure).

Also, the second night was qualitatively better, the first 80 minutes or so were just non-stop excellent, before he went into the indulgent bits, and I think even the new songs played were almost uniformly good.

And a tangent - in a venue like this, there really needs to be an offical standing/no-standing policy for the non-floor seats. There were half a dozen people standing in any give section, which really just made it akward for everyone, especially when the standing people attempted to dance. The fellow behind me was quite pissed at the folks standing the row in front of me.

Posted by: M__N | November 13, 2008 12:21 PM

Funny - he was heckled in almost identical fashion at the NYC show. Could just be part of the show. Would be consistent with Corgan's sense of humor.

Posted by: xcanuck1 | November 13, 2008 2:02 PM

David, out of curiosity, how many concerts have you seen? I'm only asking because you claim it was the worst, bar none, and by the description of it here and in other online publications I've read, I find it really hard to believe that this could honestly be the worst concert you have ever seen, unless you just don't like the Pumpkins, which appears to be the case looking at your review of the 9:30 club show.
Worst concert I ever saw was Guns'n'Roses in Pontiac, Michigan back in 92. It took them hours to come on after Metallica was done, they played for maybe 30 minutes total, and that was after multiple stops and starts and playing the same song twice because "technical difficulties" prevented them from playing one of the songs they were going to play.

Posted by: melaniemelaniemelanie | November 14, 2008 12:26 PM

I've seen a few shows in my day. 115 so far this year. A bad band playing a bland 30 minute set is one thing, but a formerly great band playing a painfully bloated 3 and a half hour set is worse. (That would be the 9:30 show, by the way. The show on Tuesday was just not that great, not all-time awful.)

Posted by: PostRockDavid | November 14, 2008 1:00 PM

Posted by: jakez468 | November 14, 2008 7:47 PM

Lots of people know who Tubeway Army is. I'm sure Billy Corgan does.

Posted by: dccamp68 | November 17, 2008 3:25 PM

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