Honestly, I went into this show with low expectations. Sure, I listened to Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness in Jr. high school. I bought the Aeroplane Flies High box set. I was one of the disappointed when Adore came out sans Jimmy Chamberlain (and sans rocking), who slowly converted to the album’s beauty. I actually liked Machina/the Machines of God, and I saw the Pumpkins absolutely kill it at Saltair on that final tour in 2000. But the reunion has always been sort of a pleasant surprise for me, like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk, rather than a text-all-of-my-friends-about-the-reunion-and-preorder-the-new-album-weeks-in-advance-type surprise. But on the 17th, Billy Corgan showed that his artistic aptitude and years of experience will be enough to carry his Pumpkins for as long as he feels like it.
The night started with a short set from Chicago’s Bad City. If vocalist Josh Caddy’s cliche rock tag lines weren’t enough for me to tune out (“Do you believe in Rock & Roll?!” “As soon as we pulled up I could smell the Rock & Roll Salt Lake!” “We’re Bad City from Chicago, Illinois, and as long as we’re alive, Rock & Roll will never die!”), their stage presence and generic, rehashed music would have been. It was like listening to a KISS/Guns N’ Roses supergroup. For some that probably sounds incredible, but I’ve never been into unintentional cover bands––and Caddy’s use of the Freddie Mercury half-mic stand was sacrilege.
Finally, it was 7:30, and the lights dimmed to the sounds of chimes while we waited for Corgan and company to take the stage. As he strolled out, I noticed that Corgan’s penchant for ugly clothing went unchecked as the shirt he was wearing looked like it was made from the fabric of Al Bundy’s sofa. But, this was my first time seeing the new lineup on stage––Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Nicole Fiorentino on bass and 20 year old Mike Byrne on drums. They opened the night with “Astral Planes,” one of six new songs from Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which is available for free download on the Pumpkins’ website (www.smashingpumpkins.com). The song’s simple verse/jam/verse/jam structure made for a great opener, with Corgan proving to be the master of articulating chaos in his solos. A satisfyingly less electronic, more rock rendition of the 1998 hit “Ava Adore” followed. The crowd was really getting into it, raising their fists when Billy raised his, and shouting out the lyrics to show their fanaticism.
It wasn’t until the third and fourth songs on the bill that I was really sucked into the performance. I was shocked when they started into “Drown,” one of my favorite Pumpkins songs (from the Singles movie soundtrack) which climaxed into one of the most singable guitar solos I’ve ever heard, along with an atmospheric-feedback outro that raised eyebrows and closed eyes as we all took it in. I didn’t expect to hear many abstract songs, and this was the first of a few throughout the night. They bridged into another distinct new track which I later learned was called “As Rome Burns.” When I bought Zeitgeist in 2007, I was hoping for an intense, unrelenting Corgan-rock track like “As Rome Burns” somewhere on there. It was sort of like a shout out to “Geek USA” from Siamese Dream (check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKWxaRsAF3o), and it was one of the highlights of the entire night.
Their set was fleshed out with the unruffled “A Song for a Son” from Teargarden, as well as a quick run through “Today” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” just to make sure that the 90s fans in the ZERO t-shirts were still paying attention. I was developing a raging Pumpkins-boner and another unexpected track, “Eye,” didn’t help to hide it. This was a departure from the electronic version on the Lost Highway soundtrack. They simplified the instrumentation, and as he walked out to the edge of the stage among the crowd, Corgan turned the end of the song into a wailing, epic guitar lead that gave me chills, and earned him papparazzi-like attention from adoring fans.
At this point in the set, I realized that Corgan hadn’t said more than a “thank you” to the crowd the entire night. The band was just doing their thing, with Corgan’s terrible posture––from his shoulder blades to the top of his head becomes perfectly horizontal when he solos. Byrne’s Chamberlain-inspired drumming was a lot of fun to watch, especially since he didn’t play like a 20 year old; he played like a veteran, with just enough arrogance to keep the audience captivated. Fiorentino couldn’t have looked more like the girl musicians in Guitar Hero, dancing in place like a drunk mermaid trying half-heartedly to get the surface. But it really was endearing, and she’s a great bassist. Schroeder didn’t demand the spotlight in any way, with his simple haircut, collared shirt and statuesque performing, but he got the job done, and I really liked his additions to the songs.
“United States” was next on the list, and it didn’t disappoint. Over the course of 25 minutes the band played the first and second halves of the song. One of Corgan’s favorite things to do is to throw long interludes into his songs, and this show was no exception. He stood alone in a red spotlight for a 10 minute quiet/loud guitar/noise solo that set the mood for something different. Once the crowd had committed themselves to the vibe of the interlude, cheering randomly and rocking back and forth, the band broke into Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” with the accompanying Bonham-like drum solo from Byrne. During the drum solo Corgan stood at the side of the stage smiling like a proud uncle, and Byrne proved to be more than capable as a drummer, sucking the audience into his solo with one-handed antics and a gong to boot.
Corgan finally took the mic to say a few things before going on. He was his regular witty self, spouting jokes that were both aimed at Utah (“Why do they got you in a cage over there? [pointing at the side of the room] What did you guys do wrong? You didn’t go on missions, did you.”) and at the band (“ok, that’s the end of the concert because you all don’t like my jokes...you booed at that more than my Joseph Smith joke” and [in response to confessions of love from the audience] “Billy doesn’t love you, Billy doesn’t even love Billy. *playful booing* Hey, you all seem to love the songs I write when I’m all fucked up”).
After the seven minute monologue, it was back to music. They burned through new alternative songs like “Spangled,” “Tarantula” and “Tom Tom,” as well as some older radio sing-a-longs like “Stand Inside Your Love,” “Tonight, Tonight” and “Cherub Rock.” After a very passionate crowd sing-a-long of “whooo wawnts that ho-wney, as lawwwng as there’s some mo-wney...let me out” the Pumpkins waved to the audience and left the stage, while the crowd shouted for more. It was one of the more intense pre-encore crowds I’ve been in––I even heard the guy next to me say “my heart is seriously pounding SO hard” which made me laugh, but it also reminded me how dedicated Pumpkins fans can be.
Of course, the band came back to a swell of appreciation from the tireless crowd, almost two hours after the Pumpkins hit the stage. They ran through another catchy song from Teargarden, “Freak,” which was a crowd favorite even though no one seemed to know the words, but they were trying to sing along anyway. The night’s capper was a new unreleased track called “Gossamer.” Clocking in at over 15 minutes, this song traveled across the musical spectrum, from beautiful melodic textures to monstrous soloing and noise. The last three minutes of the song were like a three minute musical-orgasm with ascending guitars, climactic drums, and flashing lights that made the band’s massive silhouettes bounce around on the wall behind them. It could have gotten old had Slash or some other look-how-good-I-am guitarist had been playing, but it totally worked for Corgan. No one plays like Billy Corgan, and his new Pumpkin patch seems to be keeping right up with him.