April 12, 2002



“Reborn! Reborn!”

The screamed lyric came midway through the opening song during the Chicago debut by Billy Corgan’s new band Zwan at the Double Door on Friday, the first of a sold-out three-night stand. And it couldn’t have been more appropriate.

The former leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, the most successful rock band this city has ever produced, has indeed reinvented himself.

This was only the ninth gig by Corgan’s new combo, now expanded to a quintet. But the band played with gusto and precision--we’d expect nothing less from the bald taskmaster--holding the promise of great things to come, especially on album.

Corgan remains a songwriter of considerable depth and complexity, and getting a handle on his new material after one listen in a live club setting is difficult. For one thing, lyrics can be lost, though the occasional Corganesque line leaped into my notebook. (“What I want you can’t f---in’ kill!” “As the world goes round, it’s got one thinking.” “God’s gonna set the world on fire,” etc.)

Consider this an impressionistic portrait, then. But it’s a glowing one nonetheless.

While the defining characteristic of Zwan’s sound remains Corgan’s love-it or hate-it voice, the band’s musical backings are much more subtle than all but the “Adore”-era Pumpkins, replacing guitar bombast with more textured backdrops of intertwining melody lines that recall the Frippertronics of King Crimson circa “Discipline.”

Corgan seems to have been influenced by the pared-down take on progressive rock offered by the so-called “math-rock” genre. Matt Sweeney and Dave Pajo, the two guitarists who flanked him, both hail from this camp, with their resumes including time in Chavez, Tortoise, and Papa M. But Corgan provided a strong contrast by occasionally bursting out with his own dramatic and lyrical solos.

The effect was like Jimmy Page stepping in between Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and it made Zwan an instant contender for the coolest three-guitar band since Blue Oyster Cult.

Meanwhile, behind this 18-string assault, fellow Pumpkins vet Jimmy Chamberlin played with his usual combination of bricklayer wallop and jazzbo dexterity, indulging a long-checked Bill Bruford fixation. And newcomer Paz Lenchantin (formerly of A Perfect Circle) added circular, mellifluous bass lines and beautiful backing vocals.

From that opening epic--a 12-minute tour de force called “Jesus, I” that incorporated a snippet of Bob Marley’s “Exodus”--to a playful romp through the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” Zwan delivered one surprise after another, most of them good.

Happy re-birthday, Billy. It’s good to have you back.

(Zwan will perform as part of Q101's Jamboree at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park on May 18. Also on the bill: Kid Rock, Tenacious D, Our Lady Peace, Dashboard Confessional, X-Ecutioners, and the Strokes.)