Concert review: The Smashing Pumpkins

pumpkins

Schottenstein Center, Columbus, OH – August 11, 2018

Toward the end of the Columbus stop of their “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour, Smashing Pumpkins frontman/fountainhead/dictator (benevolent and/or otherwise) Billy Corgan announced to – or, perhaps, reminded, though it was news to me – the assembled throng that 2018 marked the band’s thirtieth anniversary. As someone with almost as many years invested in the b(r)and as the members themselves – and, often, many more spent consecutively – I found the milestone interesting trivia but not exactly possessed of abundant applicable meaning. To the fans that helped make them arguably the Grunge era’s most artistically resonant musical export, The Smashing Pumpkins have already existed in a sort of non-corporeal form – meaning Corgan, his prodigious, occasionally brilliant (even in latter days) songbook, his demonstrably enormous ego, and what always seemed like a rotating cast of anonymous session players filling out the roster – for an intolerable amount of time. “Shiny” is newsworthy, then, in that it reunites three-quarters of the band’s acknowledged “classic” lineup – guitar ninja James Iha, liquid metal drum wizard Jimmy Chamberlin, plus The Great Pumpkin himself – for the first time in over fifteen years, and exciting in that the Pumpkins decided to mark the occasion by focusing almost exclusively on material from their first five albums.* I understand this may sound, at best, like a rote or uninspired exercise, or, at worst, like a brazen cash grab while the money was especially hot, and admit the until recently untended Pumpkin patch does house a fertile topsoil for cultivating cynicism.

*Just how classic, or even beloved, the quintet is as a whole will vary by respondent, though Pumpkinheads are generally unified in their affection for album #2, 1993’s slick, powerful MTV breakthrough “Siamese Dream”, and the bloated but compelling art rock bumper crop of 1995 double album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. In my opinion, all five records have more merits than demerits – Corgan’s heedless refusal to allow his band to be pigeonholed at the very height of its success remains damned admirable, if difficult to process in full without indigestion – and I especially hold a seasoned fan’s affection for SP’s simultaneously primitive and assured debut, 1991’s “Gish”. Still, it was “Siamese Dream” that tore open my conception of rock music at a still tender age, vaulting The Smashing Pumpkins momentarily into position as my unquestioned favorite band among pretenders to the throne by the dozen.

Unlike other live acts for whom I’ve offered second opinions in the past, I’m finding it difficult to envision returning to the well an additional time for the Pumpkins. Some of that has to do with my instinctive wariness toward making the greater DAE topic pool too homogenous, while some speaks indirectly to the mild cynicism I just referenced. Mostly, I just feel confident that “Shiny and Oh So Bright”, however and to what extent it is documented, will prove to be The Smashing Pumpkins’ definitive concert statement. It was a spectacular show on multiple levels. It felt like a culmination. Corgan, who has stubbornly, pridefully, almost heroically, resisted this sort of overtly commercial endeavor from almost the moment the original band imploded in 2000, hasn’t always done so for reasons of principle. Post-Pumpkin life has seemed for him a wide-ranging journey of self-discovery but also an ongoing object lesson in the pesky practical limitations of artistic freedom. As its primary songwriter and public face, Corgan was so singularly and inextricably linked with the identity of his former band that it made sense for him to reform a more personally pliable demo version once/whenever his solo material didn’t prove sufficiently inspiring to the public. Even after grudgingly flipping the switch with a vacationing Chamberlin and two hired guns, the famous contrarian, self-possessed as ever, still held his audience at arm’s length, presumably thrilled at the prospect of auditoriums freshly filled with eager throngs who would never have paid to see him alone, just so long as they consumed his art on his exclusive terms.

As an O.G. fan who, due to geographic restrictions, whiffed entirely on seeing the band at the height of its powers (and lineup continuity) long ago, I certainly never waffled when finally presented first one and then another opportunity to purchase a brand name-bearing ticket, even if I knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t ever necessarily represent the Pumpkins I’d once so known and loved. The three prior occasions on which I’d seen some live manifestation of The Smashing Pumpkins or other were generally minimalist affairs**, consisting of wall to wall music – some of it even recognizable – with little eye candy or even basic visual underpinning. Having effectively fooled me into thinking that’s what a Smashing Pumpkins show was, they danced in my mind as referential touchstones as “Shiny” approached. From the start, as, after an invigorating montage thumbnailing the band’s history from salad days to MTV superstardom to extended hangover unfurled across a mass of towering video screens arranged to resemble a traditional curtain, a solemn, all-business Corgan strolled, alone, out to center stage, guitar slung across his gut like a tightrope walker’s balancing pole, there was every indication this evening would be a different animal altogether. Without basking in the Schottenstein Center’s enthusiastic applause, Corgan launched into the immediately recognizable solo guitar strumming of “Disarm” – at once unquestionably one of SP’s six biggest hits and the one bearing the least similarity to its fellows – and the room caught its breath in seeming unison.

**A smallish show out under the stars, supporting a reasonably good “comeback” album (2007’s “Zeitgeist”) whose existence has already been forgotten by a fair number of listeners; a semi-claustrophobic, seatless theater show supporting a far better album (2012’s “Oceania”) that nevertheless seems destined for a similar fate; and a crowd-pleasing, if bizarre to the bone, quarter-mile sprint as one half of a co-headlining amphitheater tour with Marilyn Manson. You’d be hard pressed to imagine three concerts by the same band more varied in terms of venue, tone, and, especially, content, though taken as a whole, they do chart Corgan’s haphazard, post-breakup, post-reformation path through the wilderness from novelty to respectability. Despite ostensibly playing to his fan base’s famished nostalgia triggers, the M.O. at shows one and two was new album promotion and creative overindulgence, with nary a traditional “hit” to be found. So it has largely been for Our Billy on his various treks, both solo and shilling Pumpkin Substitute. Oddly enough, it was at the Manson show – with nothing to promote finally except, just maybe, the concept of a good time – where I noticed the ice between performer and expectations appreciably thawing. That turned into such an unexpectedly blissful night, Central Florida humidity be damned, that I just had to document the whole thing for posterity.

As “Disarm” moved from the uncertain, wispy coo of its first verse to that still stirring chorus, a wail of lamentation for innocence lost reinforced by timpani and strings, the giant screens filled up with a kinetic procession of posed childhood photos and candid video snippets. Each image stood alone for a pregnant moment before being inevitably augmented/overwritten in tandem with bright, childlike coloring and aphoristic graffiti, as if controlled by the world’s most hyperactive, hypercritical Snapchat filter. For someone with my previous meat & potatoes (and pumpkins) live experience, this real time audio-visual memory deconstruction session was the best sort of opening to signal something new – intriguing, immersing, borderline stunning. The Pumpkins would lean into this visual component throughout the night, and send it spiraling in all sorts of symbiotic emotional directions – some gorgeous, some standard, some cliched, some deeply affecting. The swell of the final strings melted into a fresh wave of applause and suddenly elements of the stage were moving all at once. The screens smoothly separated into four impressive monoliths as stagehands pushed Chamberlin’s drum kit out into view. Returning hero Iha walked to his spot, flanked by Jeff Schroeder, the band’s bassist since Zeitgeist. Corgan watched the pieces in motion with the serene, satisfied air of a master architect standing in the shadow of his signature edifice. Then the buoyant opening riff of “Rocket” filled the air and any latent trace of tentativeness or modesty was incinerated in its happy wake. We were off and running.

In an era when the charts were topped by a procession of intermittently scuzzy but dependably lucrative variations on a theme, The Smashing Pumpkins were a sonic breed apart, a ripping guitar rock band for sensitive souls and hopeless romantics, a bipolar vortex of the polished and the primal. The five studio albums from which “Shiny” culled its setlist would constitute a worthy career for most any band, even though the majority of fans arguably missed out by only ever really caring about two of them. Corgan’s most forceful assertion of authorial privilege remaining, then, beyond the relentless, oft-enchanting visual business undergirding his swirling music, was to purposely expand the boundaries of a standard “greatest hits” tour to also include a buffet of ostensibly lesser fare while banking on the idea that audiences would be too rapt and satiated to either notice or care. For a fan who stubbornly stuck around until the bitter end of SP’s beginning, it was revelatory to finally hear “Rocket” yield the floor to live renditions of the two best known songs from their groundbreaking debut, Gish, the bracing, caterwauling “Siva” and the tingly, hypnotic “Rhinoceros”. These were among the very first Pumpkins songs to which I made any connection as a young fan, and to hear them live for the first time across so many intervening years was like practical time travel, and surprisingly emotional. It would hardly be the evening’s last such heartstring pluck.

The connection between artist and listener is, of course, a relationship like most any other, full of memories and milestones. I still remember the first time I ever heard The Smashing Pumpkins, on headphones, sitting in an armchair tucked into one of the back corners of my grandmother’s living room twenty-six (or so) years ago. An employee at the local record store (then a thing, look it up), clearly drunk on Gish and straining for a way to describe this neither fish nor fowl new band, had spent much of his explanation extolling the virtues of its “Hendrixian” guitar player, which, because I was young and, ahem, inexperienced, I assumed meant that he was a blistering soloist. The guy didn’t give me much else to go on. My own, less hyperbolic introduction, “Drown”, a moody meditation stashed like a surprise Christmas present at the end of exceptional period soundtrack Singles, suggested that Corgan’s ease and textural fluidity with the instrument made for the weightier comparison, and hearing it live – once again for the first time ever – gently nudged my emotional circuitry toward overload. To seriously suggest a main set that would last a colossal three solid hours wire to wire might have somehow peaked with its fifth song of thirty is to perhaps let the heart lead the head to an unseemly degree. It, thankfully, also has the benefit of not being strictly true (until the next song), as, immediately after, black-clad stagehands began moving additional apparatus into place. Corgan ascended the metal staircase they rolled out, turned his back to the audience, and, at once reverent and forceful, began singing David Bowie’s immortal “Space Oddity”*** like he’d written the thing – as less a “feel-good” than a “feel everything” song – to the, as it turned out, perfect visual accompaniment of stars falling and supernovas exploding on the giant screen directly before him.

***It says a lot about Corgan’s classic rock bona fides, innate talent as an arranger, and natural self-assurance in the face of often merited criticism that he takes care to borrow from the best. The main set’s trio of covers, all stellar, contained not merely “Space Oddity” but a faithful, clearly loving rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, and a rollicking version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” that boldly recast it as a keyboard rather than guitar-powered rock anthem without sacrificing any of the original’s heft, scope, or drive. While no one knows what 1971 might have thought about the resulting oblong tower of sound, 2018 sure ate it up.

Emotion was the watchword for the entire night. I imagine staring into that display from so close a distance, writhing in the intergalactic glow of a dancing procession of individual pixels as big as his head, must still have been disorienting for Corgan, even after so many shows. Song after song, the mostly reconstituted Pumpkins made the emotional quotient of some of, let’s face it, the most exquisite and intricately crafted pop music of the last quarter century feel as close and immediate to me as those collapsing constellations were to him. Besides being as thoughtfully constructed a show as my recent memory can recall – the stage itself was continually reconfigured in accordance with the needs of the current song, and interplay between the music and visuals, such as with the Mellon Collie ballad “Thirty-Three” playing to the accompaniment of a unbroken study of a beautiful woman’s determined but not exactly unflinching face, was consistently striking throughout – “Shiny and Oh So Bright”, in all its breadth and grandeur, served as a direct mainline into the best memories of an entire generation of fans suddenly, beautifully, made manifest again, not to mention the exceedingly rare modern concert spectacle to deliver all the hits – “Tonight, Tonight”, “Cherub Rock”, and “1979” bookending “Stairway to Heaven”, the heart-in-throat heft of “Mayonaise” or vamped up goth theatrics of “Ava Adore”, or a climax of “Hummer”, “Today”, and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” bringing down the house – without pandering or posturing.

Or maybe it was all just me, re-experiencing in a headlong rush some of the most breathtaking sonic vistas of my youth spent as a musical explorer from an altogether different and elevated perspective, and dramatically overreacting to how happy the whole thing made me. How insignificant, in the end, all the intervening years and trials had proven to the steadfast connection my younger self had, and apparently still has, with these songs. And how the Smashing Pumpkins tore them inside out for the first time live in my presence. I’m embarrassed it was even a question. As ever, I’m content to be proven wrong, but good luck getting me to acknowledge any further low grumblings with an experience like “Shiny and Oh So Bright” still in my back pocket. We were unfortunately already well on our way out of the Schott during the incomparable Chamberlin’s encore drum solo, though I picked out a tasty, muted flourish here and there and smiled. Logistics had finally intruded on a fairly sublime night and it was time to escape out into the August night like bats from the proverbial belfry. I was worn out but thrumming, surrounded by dear friends not yet fully disengaged from a long night of celebration. It would be my birthday in less than an hour.

As we stood at the curb awaiting our ride, I thought again of the first time I’d ever heard the returning James Iha speak, some 120 minutes past. “Are you having a reasonable time?” deadpanned the enigmatic former bench player turned conquering general, as Corgan beamed nearby and symbolically ceded him center stage. It was a slyly understated, multi-faceted question to pose, both at the time and at the end of such a rolling cascade of artistic vigor, deserving of an equally thoughtful answer. Though the multitudes responded in roaring kind at the time, I still can only speak for myself.

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