Live Last Night: Smashing Pumpkins
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?
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.
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?
(More pics after the jump, including shots of Fake-ha and F'arcy!)
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