Smashing Pumpkins at the Chicago Theatre

November 18, 2008


Just shy of eight years after what he said was the band's last show ever at Metro in December 2000, Billy Corgan finally brought the Smashing Pumpkins back home to Chicago Tuesday, marking the return of a key band of the alternative era and one of the best-selling groups this city has produced.

Night one at the Chicago Theatre was billed as "Black Sunshine," while Wednesday's return engagement is labeled "White Crosses." (Friday at the Auditorium Theatre is "Black Sunshine" again, while Saturday there is "White Crosses." All four shows sold out.)

After the opening night, I still don't have any idea what "Black Sunshine" means. But like many devoted fans, this veteran chronicler of the Great Pumpkin long ago gave up trying to discern the now 41-year-old singer and songwriter's motives, methodology or psychological well-being.
The bigger question remains: Since this new group contains only Jimmy Chamberlin from the original chart-toppers, with the current lineup completed by proficient but unexceptional hired hands Ginger Reyes, Jeff Schroeder and Lisa Harriton on bass, second guitar and keyboards, augmented by occasional violin and horns--how does it qualify as the Smashing Pumpkins?

In the years between Pumpkins Mach I and Pumpkins Mach II, we got a soulful solo acoustic Corgan, a spiritual Zwan Corgan and an electro-glam solo Corgan. And he seemed happier and more well-balanced in all those incarnations. Though Corgan wasn't as surly at home as he's reportedly been at other tour stops, the Elk Grove Village native wasn't particularly content either, at one point baiting the crowd and daring it to berate him.

When Corgan calls a project "the Smashing Pumpkins," it partly signals a return to his bombastic, grandiose style of rock. But more importantly, it seems to indicate a certain mindset, one best described as rat-in-a-cage, life's-a-bummer-when-you're-a-hummer "miserable"--or at least driven to the point of insanity.

As the bald wonder put it in the new DVD "If All Goes Wrong," a documentary chronicling the early days of this reunion: "My tendency is to push everything to its absolute breaking point."

And push Corgan did. After an opening drum solo by Chamberlin, one of several, the band's leader took the stage adorned as a gothic sun god to deliver the bubblegum chant "Everybody Clap Your Hands," proclaiming, "Rock 'n' roll, people, this is rock 'n' roll!"

Things only got sillier and more excessive from there. No rhythm was busy enough, no vocal was tortured enough, no guitar solo was long or furious enough and there was no such thing as too many crescendos. In other words, yeah, it was a lot like the Pumpkins of old. Only they had more good melodies back in the day.

As at all the "Black Sunshine" shows, the 2 1/2-hour set list was a mix of new material and much-loved '90s hits, heavier on the former than the latter, even though this was billed as a "20th Anniversary Tour." Corgan could be applauded for refusing to live in the past. But the sad truth was that with too few exceptions--"Tarantula" from "Zeitgeist" (2007) and the new video-game single "G.L.O.W."--the new material didn't measure up to old songs such as "Tonight, Tonight," "Today" or "Heavy Metal Machine."

The nadir was a ridiculously jammed-out "United States," as indulgent an example of pointless wankery as anyone's endured since "Tales from Topographic Oceans."

On the bright side, the mid-evening acoustic interlude was lovely, and for progressive rock done right, you had to love the cover of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," which closed the set proper.

Wait, could that be what he meant by "Black Sunshine"? To quote one of Corgan's old alt peers, oh well, whatever, never mind.