Corgan in a can


July 7, 2005


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 lifeless.

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.