Still Just A Rat In A Cage
The Smashing Pumpkins opened up their 2012 tour Sunday night with an intimate warm-up show at the opulent Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, WI. The tour is in support of the band's newest record Oceania, an album which nearly most of the audience members in attendance had probably never heard. The towering third and fourth balconies were nearly empty, but, judging by the spattering of past Pumpkins tour shirts, fans showed up hoping to reconnect with a bit of their musical pasts. Including myself and the two friends I was with, we were here for the 'hits'.
Even though the band's only remaining original member is the Great Pumpkin himself Billy Corgan, this new-era Smashing Pumpkins is built to closely replicate the original line-up. James Iha has been replaced by the somewhat Asian appearing and awesome guitarist Jeff Schroeder (he is part Korean), D'arcy and her replacement Melissa Auf der Maur has been replaced by the beautiful Nicole Fiorentino from Veruca Salt fame, and youngster Mike Byrne taking Jimmy Chamberlin's place behind the drums. For all intensive purposes, this band is more technically sound than its previous incarnations. While Jimmy Chamberlin is a kind of living legend, Schroeder is twice the guitarist as James Iha and Nicole Florentino is not ony a superb bassist, but seemingly a lovely and approachable human being, more than could be said of ex-bassist D'arcy Wretzky.
Yet, rather than being a strength, their clean cohesion felt like a hindrance at times. Gone was the kind of raw psychedelia-pop that the band practically invented, and in its place was a very polished guitar shredding machine. Obviously, being a polished group is a good attribute for a band to have, but the Pumpkins came off so controlled they sounded preprogrammed. The band's fixation with the technical element of their craft was on full display. A roadie gave Corgan a new guitar for each song to the point it was humorous. At least, with a very talented guitar player flanking Billy, Corgan didn't take every solo and fill upon his shoulders and his singing improved for it. His lines were clear, full, and when he bothered to, forceful with intent.
The performance was unevenly divided. The band began the evening playing its new record Oceania in its entirety. An ambitious record, somehow loosely involved in the Teargarden Kaleidyscope suite of songs, it is vintage Pumpkins in sound, more forceful in its delivery, yet somehow unfortunately derivative. As my cousin Joe observed during the show, it has an air of "let's try it again" to it - trying to recreate past successes rather than adapting and reinventing themselves. Especially with a completely different line-up than the original band, one might think the sound would evolve, but it's almost if the band feels like it has to sound like that 'old Smashing Pumpkins' and because of it there is a very strange constraint to the Van Halen-esque shredding and blasting rock 'n roll numbers. What Corgan seemingly doesn't realize is that despite the Smashing Pumpkins reputation as a hard-rock alternative band, it has been Corgan's ability to write lovely pop songs and ballads like "Disarm" or "Tonite, Tonite" or "1979" that has made the group as big as it is, what has let so many identify with they music. Such captivating and more introspective numbers are nearly absent from Oceania.
This couldn't have been more clear once the band made it to older material. They segued from Oceania into a fully rocked through David Bowie's "Space Oddity" before embarking on a smattering of their past hits, beginning with a brutal rendition of "X.Y.U." and going through classics like "Disarm," "Today," and all of the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness singles except for "1979." "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" had some of its original fury, "Today" didn't sound repetitious or tired, and these classic songs resonated in a way they haven't for a long time.
The odd dichotomy of a band trying to forge a new path while balancing its rich history was on full display. 'ZERO' t-shirts and hats occupied most of the merch booth's space, a sad acknowledgement to the public's perception of the band. Those of us who grew up with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness are 30 or older now. Some of the fans in attendance looked like they hadn't been to a rock show since the 90s, but the crowd was every bit as raucous and exilerated as it would have been in the 90s - one mosh pit short of authentic - and for a brief moment, time faded away and a brief wondrous past lived again in full glory. A few folks even pulled out their lighters during some of the quieter numbers like cell phones still hadn't come into prominence.
After a heartfelt plea of noise from the crowd, the Smashing Pumpkins returned for an encore. "Thirty-Three" bristled with life, played as an homage to Denis Flemion - a founder of Milwaukee cult-band The Frogs. Siamese Dream gem "Mayonaise" got to be the hit it never was, the Pumpkins drowning it in the appropriate amount of psychedelic haze. As the show ended, Billy Corgan lingered onstage shaking the occasional hand. He seemed torn. Wanting to stay out there and revel in the adoration of those whose lives were formulated in part by his songs, to play on the stage that is clearly an inseparable part of his life. Wanting to be relevant in a way that he hasn't been in 15 years. Unable to live in the past, unable to move on.