Billy Corgan has made it clear that he intends to spend the rest of his
career making music in a number of guises, from solo acoustic to orchestral
pop to reuniting the Smashing Pumpkins, the band that made him famous.
This knowledge puts the first of Corgan's two sold-out shows at the Vic
Theatre on Tuesday in context. As "Billy Corgan's Much-Anticipated New
Project," a la his short-lived band Zwan, it left much to be desired. As
"just one more intriguing stop on a long and inscrutable journey," it was
still far from perfect but much easier to accept.
Think of Neil Young circa his odd 1982 synthesizer album "Trans." In
retrospect, you have to admire the sheer perversity of such a sharp left
turn. But at the time you had to ask, "What the heck happened to the Neil we
loved?" Or worse: "Has Neil lost his freaking marbles?"
Despite the lackluster performance of Corgan's solo debut, "The Future
Embrace," on the Billboard albums chart -- it debuted two weeks ago at No.
31 and is now struggling to maintain a presence in the Top 50 -- it's a
strong collection of moving and ultra-melodic electronic pop songs, owing
much to his heroes New Order, with echoes of the early '90s "shoegazer"
style of atmospheric guitar.
Unfortunately, Corgan's set at the Vic barely did his new songs justice,
and it certainly didn't elevate them to a new level the way the Pumpkins or
even Zwan did whenever they took the stage.
True, the Great Pumpkin blasted into interstellar overdrive during a
freaky guitar workout on "To Love Somebody," and the extended
crowd-participation segment of "All Things Change" -- which found him
leading the packed floor of the Vic in clapping and singing, "We can change
the world" -- was an inspired moment.
But the guitarist and vocalist was the only musician doing any
improvising, and he seemed to be the only one playing anything significant
at all in real time. Keyboardists Brian Liesegang and Linda Strawberry and
drummer Matt Walker, who danced as he hammered away at a few electronic
pads, at best provided the occasional flourish to augment the mostly
pre-taped backing tracks, which were rigid and lifeless.
Songs such as "Mina Loy (M.O.H.)" and "The Camera Eye" remain indelibly
catchy and emotionally wrenching, but we'd have been just as well off
listening on our iPods, since the "live" band added nothing to them. Of the
non-album tracks, one new number was an effective and creepy drone, but
"Johanna" was old-school Corgan melodramatic bombast at its worst.
You have to pay your dues if you wanna play the blues, and Corgan
certainly has. But it also helps to have a real band, and Corgan simply
slaughtered two blues tunes, including a version of the classic "I'm a King
Bee." And the evening-closing robot-pop version of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way
to the Top (If You Wanna to Rock and Roll)" was just plain dumb.
Corgan seemed to have spent much more time designing a futuristic stage
set than considering how the songs could be transformed in concert. Propped
on futuristic stands that looked like a cross between lawn furniture and the
tripods in the old version of "The War of the Worlds," the instruments stood
out on a stark white stage against what at first looked like a tile wall in
an old-fashioned bathroom.
The hundreds of tiny squares on this backdrop turned out to be capable of
each displaying myriad different colored lights. It was a mesmerizing
effect, but it grew old a third of the way through the 15-song set, and it
was by no means the state-of-the-art mind-blower Corgan promised. Those
crafty old synth veterans Kraftwerk offered a more spectacular light and
video display at the Riv a few weeks ago, as well as a great example of how
electronic pop can be pre-programmed without feeling pre-packaged or
Billy would do well to take notes at a Kraftwerk gig if he intends to
pursue future tours in this mostly electronic vein. But knowing Chicago's
short-attention-span auteur, he is already throwing his arms around five new
projects, none of which will sound anything like "The Future Embrace."
Opening for Corgan was Doris Hansen, a quintet from Kansas City that is
yet another in the long line of New Wave revivalists -- its twist is that it
has a trombone player -- and the Crimea, an ambitious but schizophrenic
English quintet derailed by the fact that it couldn't decide which of its
heroes it most wanted to emulate: Joy Division, Radiohead, Tool or Coldplay.