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This is part 1 of a 4 part piece I am writing, inspired by a pair of Smashing Pumpkins concerts and a DVD documentary. As you may or may not know, I am a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, I always appreciate their work. I feel the need to preface this piece by saying that as it will give you an insight into the context of my commentary.
At the end of the show, Billy Corgan asked the crowd if they trusted the band after 20 years, and that the people who didn't should raise their hands and let their voices be heard. Although I wasn't one of them, there was more than a few people who did raise their hands... like the guy who rode the train home in the seat across from mine, who I overheard (clearly) telling whoever he was on the phone with quite emphatically how it was the worse show he'd ever seen, and that they only played 3 or so "good songs".
This was the first show of the Smashing Pumpkins 20th anniversary show in their hometown of Chicago IL. I've only been waiting to see the Pumpkins live since as long as I can remember, so you can sure bet I wasn't missing going to this one. When it was announced that the two nights at each venue would be completely unique, the first called "Black Sunshine" and the second "White Crosses" I was even more excited and promptly purchased tickets to both shows. I wanted to hear everything the Pumpkins could throw at me, as I'm always impressed with their music, even if it's not at first. There were plenty of others who were pumped for this show too, and they were treated to what was at the very least, a unique, if not satisfying, experience.
Here's the set list from "Black Sunshine".
2 Everybody Come Clap
Once Upon a Time
The Rose March
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning
Heavy Metal Machine
Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun
- Encore -
We Only Come Out At Night
Everything is Beautiful
Now I know some of you casual Pumpkins fans out there might be looking at this set list and saying: "Man, that guy on the train is right, they only played like 3 good songs." And you might be in agreement with a good portion of the crowd that night too as the general consensus seemed to be one of confusion and slight disappointment. Not me though... and not just because I'm a hardcore Pumpkins fan. Maybe it was all the new music, all that blasted creativity or adventurous performance art feel that put people off...who knows. This was definitely not a band playing their hits to cash in on their 20th anniversary... this was an art rock show, that to me, was very reminiscent of the great prog shows of the 60s and 70s. Think early Pink Floyd, "Dazed and Confused" jams from Zeppelin or the Doors.
Starting off with Jimmy Chamberlin tearing it up on "Roctopus", a massive drum solo, the band then jumped right into one of their more humorous (and one could argue, less than successful) moments. "Everybody Come Clap" was delightfully fun and unexpected, complete with Billy dressed in a long flowing white dress and sun goddess style headdress. The crowd was definitely a little confused, but humor is not entirely out of place at Pumpkins shows, and it would definitely come back during this one.
They tore threw their two most recent radio singles, "Tarantula" and "Glow" with plenty of fire before launching into a slightly stretched, feedback infused, psychedelic styled version of "Siva" that just killed. The same is true for the back to back crowd favorites "Eye" and "Mayonaise," both performed with power and style. A beautifully orchestrated, complete with violin and horns, version of "Tonight, Tonight" would follow, and it sounded lush and full with the now 9 piece (I think) band.
And then things got really interesting, although depending on your viewpoint you might see it as a bad thing.
They played two of my favorite Pumpkins songs, "Speed Kills" from the just slightly obscure MACHINA II and "Transformer" from the even more obscure The Aeroplane Flies High box set. It goes without saying that these two didn't exactly win over a crowd that was already a little on edge from what they considered an odd opening number in "Everybody Come Clap", and if that wasn't enough, then the next two tracks would bludgeon them into a bit of a stupor. "Superchrist" and "United States" were brutally, blindingly powerful, almost conceptual art powerful with the lights and the shear force of the guttural guitar roar... like they were saying "We might not be making you feel happy, but we're going to make you feel something... anything at all", kind of Stooges-esque. It was quite successful, because at the end, where I was floored at the raw power of the band, many others seemed to be pushed towards discomfort and or more confusion.
The acoustic set that followed was a great counterpoint to the force of the previous assault with beautiful renditions of "The Crux" and "The Rose March". I hadn't heard much of "Once Upon a Time" live before... at least not that I remember, but it sounded beautiful.
Billy's trademark satire and biting remarks would come out at the end of this set as he taunted the crowd a bit by remarking how they could get all their screaming out as good therapy and they could get back to the show as soon as they were done. This has always been part of Billy's personality on stage (and off) and didn't come as a surprise to me, but some people might have been put off by it. If they were, what would come at the end of the show surely pushed them over the edge, but more on that later.
They would continue with back to back crowd pleasers in "Today" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", before returning to the obscure with "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning." This was another welcome surprise and the dark, brooding, foreboding, gothic feeling was everything you expect it could to be, with Corgan looking alien and frightening in the swirling psychedelic light with the pulsing sound behind him.
The band closed the set with another massive onslaught. It started with a twisted, mutated and very visceral version of "Heavy Metal Machine" with an even more twisted and mutated cover of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" thrown into the middle. That pushed right into an explosive version of "Glass" before descending into an experimental epic. "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" is originally a Pink Floyd song, one that when performed live, the band would stretch to epic psychedelic and atmospheric proportions. The Pumpkins version was Floyd's version on steroids, complete with echoing bird sounds, Timpani drum solos from Billy, and plenty of echoing guitars and atmospheric noise. Truly a massive psychedelic explosion that I thought was riveting and intense... but then again, I love noise rock and a lot of experimentalism and improvisation in my music.
The crowd seemed to have other thoughts. By the time, they'd finished that massive jam, it seemed like the crowd just wasn't feeling it. They weren't hostile, but they were definitely over the edge and the encore wasn't going to bring them back... Billy even eluded to this at the end of the encore saying how if all it would take was one more song, they'd do it, but that wouldn't be enough.
I actually really liked the lighthearted, fun version of "We Only Come Out at Night", complete with kazoo melody. It was eclectic and awkwardly charming, a completely authentic alternative to the muscular, powerful version of the Pumpkins that is more familiar.
The closer "Everything is Beautiful" was more of a satirical take on the whole 20th anniversary thing than a song as Billy and Jimmy commented on 20 years and talked with the audience. The conversation didn't exactly go really well though, as the crowd seemed to get a bit more hostile as the conversation went on... which I found hilarious. It just seemed so very ironic that the band pokes fun at all the seriousness surrounding their getting back together... heated discussions have definitely been had... and that in turn gets taken too seriously again, their pokes being felt more like they were pushing the crowd to the breaking point.
People need to lighten up a little about this band in general I think.
Some might call it crowd baiting the way Corgan was talking, and maybe it was a little bit because the crowd obviously wasn't enthralled with the show, but I thought it was more satirical and ironic than anything else, especially because of some of the negative press this new version of the Pumpkins have received. I laughed when Corgan mentioned how this crowd was like an ex girlfriend, "one who left him and took his money". I saw it as a direct reference to the comments some Pumpkins fans have made since they've been touring again, feeling slighted and like Corgan just took their money. It was even more perfect because I'm sure that's exactly how some people who were in the crowd felt after this show, and I think Billy was picking up on that. Jimmy had a great comment too, remarking how after 20 more years then they're tour again and play all their greatest hits... funny because of their current view towards such practice and all the flack they've received for NOT doing exactly that.
That kind of biting humor and satire has always been present in Billy and the Pumpkin's comments and stage persona. This didn't surprise me in the least. I mean, in Billy Corgan, you have a man who in the past has proclaimed bands like the Frogs as works of genius. The Frogs are band so bitingly satirical that they can easily be viewed as "offensive" or even horrifically offensive and inappropriate by those who want to view it that way. Personally I love the Frogs too, and I wasn't offended at all. Instead, I thought it was funny and some great satire, even if he was baiting them. The sarcastic biting comments with the crowd seemed right at home in Billy's humor, but I'm not surprised that people don't see it that way. Corgan has been misinterpreted more than a few times throughout the years, and seems to thrive on that confrontation.
Perhaps the most telling comment of the night through, was Billy proclaiming that the fans really don't know what they want from this band. I can definitely see where he's coming from... one second the pumpkins are only in it for the money, but then when they play new music and try to expand artistically, everyone boos and yells "Play 1979!"... or the reverse... the fans want to hear the hits, but then when they play what you want, those fans boo and say they're only trying to cash in? How bipolar is that?! Billy and Jimmy even eluded to this directly, commenting how the fans don't like that they (the band) doesn't do what they (the fans) want, instead doing their own thing... and yet that's also why the fans like them so much.
Of course, the really nice part was that the song itself was so fitting for all the sarcasm and satire flying, and the tension between the band and the crowd. It was almost like they were saying: "You know, you may get mad at us, and hate us when we don't do what you want and all of that... but you're all still beautiful in your own way.... awww"... sort of a sweet moment, and maybe some subtle commentary on the band/fan relationship. Again, more on that later... like in future parts of this piece.
Overall, although it was unique, with both the humorous openers and closers feeling like a touch of performance art, I really enjoyed this 2-1/2+ hour show, especially the slightly more obscure set list. The band seemed to be gelling well, looking like they're really having fun and enjoying themselves (even if the crowd wasn't) and I loved seeing them break out some new material and let their artistic psychedelic juices flow. If anything, the main downside for me personally, was that I was definitely left wanting more... wanting to hear more classics, hear more new material and hear more epic psychedelic jams... luckily I had tickets to the second night. Also, as a whole, everything just didn't seem as electric as it could have been... or should have been. I kind of think the crowd reception was a big part of that, more so than the band. The second night seemed to solidify that idea, but this one was still a great show.
The reviews I've seen of this concert have ranged from excellent, to worst show ever with people swearing off the band for good, to strange ideas about it really all being a big performance art piece and trying to make sense of all of it. I can definitely see how many people might have left this show feeling unsatisfied, almost like they bought tickets for Aerosmith and ended up with Sonic Youth (just examples of the two different ends of the spectrum, I love both those bands). It was a very adventurous show, but with all art, the more adventurous it is, the more people will have a hard time connecting to it.
The concept project idea just doesn't make sense to me. Instead it just feels like someone who was confused by the artsy nature of the show and is searching for a serious meaning, instead of accepting that maybe the band was just having a laugh or two with some of their comments and exploring their psychedelic side with others. I wouldn't put it past Corgan and co. to put together a concept art set list, so I could be wrong, but I don't think this was set up with that in mind. I've also seen comments saying that the show was "too artistic" and that we don't want to look that deeply at the Pumpkins, and that we should save that kind of analysis for bands like Radiohead. That's another comment that makes no sense to me as the Pumpkins have always been an art band in my mind, just their own unique brand of art... remember the concept behind MACHINA?... Not artsy?
Oh well... to each their own, as always.
Anyways, this was only the first night of my Pumpkins concert experience, and it's stirred up plenty of thoughts in my mind, so we'll pick this up again tomorrow with part 2 of 4.
UPDATE: You can read part 2 of this piece here: The Dividing of the Pumpkins Fans, Part 2: A Concert Review