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Smashing Pumpkins

(8 Dec 2008: Auditorium Theatre — Chicago, IL)

As I entered the Auditorium Theatre I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. I also wondered how a single concert experience could contain so much drama. But nonetheless I returned along with other fans who came back to redeem our rain-checked tickets from the postponed November 22nd show. If this is what Billy Corgan had in mind when he wanted to celebrate his “20 Years of Sadness” tour then I guess the joke is on the fans because the truly sad part about this show was that all the drama leading up to it wasn’t about the music. It was about Billy Corgan and his ever-shifting moods and how those mood swings shortchange the fans who continue to put up with his perplexing antics in the hopes of hearing the music he’s been promising ever since he announced the end of the original Smashing Pumpkins in 2000.


Having digested all the YouTube footage of Billy Corgan’s rants and train wrecks from the first two Chicago shows I anxiously settled in as the house lights dimmed. It was now time to finally see how Corgan would respond to the fans who faithfully returned to the Auditorium Theatre.  Would he continue the minimal ranting and maximum rocking he unleashed at the added show at the Aragon Ballroom the night before, or would he continue where he left off two weeks ago at the Chicago Theatre?


Opening the two and a half hour long set with “Ava Adore” was a smart move. Not because of the way he played it, but because of how he used the song to say I’m sorry, putting extra emphasis on the song’s emotionally endearing refrain that states, “We must never be apart.” With arms outstretched Corgan crooned his sorrowful sentiments and apologetic undertones using most songs from the Pumpkins back catalog to the same end. But it wasn’t enough for hometown fans to forget his missteps. The show also fell short of delivering on Corgan’s persistent promise to reinvent the melancholy magic of the past with the new Pumpkins lineup.


The sentiments and the presents Corgan handed out at the end of the show only went so far. This final show of what Corgan called the “Zeitgeist period” lacked the inspiration you’d expect from a band whose front man consistently claims to save the current “lame rock music scene” with a revolutionary new sound. Though Corgan refrained from inciting the crowd with insults, he still had moments where his nervous bantering robbed the show of what power it could have had. The new songs lacked a core resonance, and even the fury of “1979” and “ Zero” seemed forced and obligatory as if Corgan was merely giving the fans what they wanted. Nonetheless, fans took what they could and tried to forgot the drama and force-fed themselves the scraps Corgan was tossing their way. The fans dug deeper into toleration mode, though, when Corgan morphed into a singer-songwriter for a four-song stretch that included new ballad “Song for a Son” and the quaint Stevie Nicks cover “Landslide”.


Halfway through the show, one of the ushers rocked along with the rest of the crowd and then leaned over to me and asked if I thought Corgan would play “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. I shrugged my shoulders and said I wasn’t sure, explaining that he played it the previous night at the Aragon and that it was unlikely that he would play it again. As the show rolled on, I watched her hopeful excitement linger before giving way to disappointment when the concert ended and the song never came. She apparently hadn’t had the chance to watch the YouTube videos of recent shows or watch the Pumpkins recent DVD If All Goes Wrong. Had she done so, I think she would have been a bit more prepared to be disappointed and understand that attending this show involved the strong possibility of being let down.


Gothic lighting cloaked the band in darkness for most of the performance as purple streaks of light and spider web projections crawled on the sidewalls. Backed by a horn section, organs, and a violinist, Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain used instrumental interludes to bridge new songs with classics from Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I wasn’t quite sure what Corgan was trying to accomplish by howling like a wolf in the new theatrical rocker “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it all made sense when he fanged the guitar with his teeth later in the show during a burly solo, highlighting his long love affair with the big bad monster ballads of ‘70s rock.


Corgan’s new experiments rock like the older hits but they lack the secret ingredient that makes past Pumpkin tracks transcendent—melody and a compelling emotional storyline. If Corgan can somehow reinvent the gift he displayed over the last 20 years of brilliantly mixing monster riffs with beautiful melodic storytelling than the tears shed tonight could possibly turn into the rain that waters the seeds of a triumphant Pumpkins return.

Based in Chicago, Chris is also the author/publisher of Live Fix Blog (www.livefixblog.com), a merging of his Popmatters and other music-based writings (reviews, interviews, features) exploring fan behavior, social media, community and artist performance in live concert culture.


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