When the Smashing Pumpkins reunited and started playing live shows, I was fairly excited and even thought they sounded decent based on bootlegs recordings. When Zeitgeist came out, I was disappointed by the blandness and uniformity of the album. Since then, they released the download-only American Gothic EP, the “G.L.O.W.” b/w “Superchrist” digital single, and the If All Goes Wrong documentary/live DVD. The EP shows the Pumpkins moving in a more acoustic direction, exploring complex vocal layering, and generally being much more creative than what Zeitgeist indicated. The single is okay but nothing revelatory. I haven’t watched the DVD yet, but I know that it contains about a half-dozen new songs that are continuing in the direction of the EP but making progress. Now on tour, the band has another four or five new songs, most of which I actually really like.
On the band’s current tour, christened their 20th Anniversary Tour, the band has been playing double-night residencies in each city they play in. They use just about the same setlists in each city for the two nights; the first is billed as “Black Sunshine” and the second as “White Crosses”. The former tends towards the louder, heavier, more guitar-centric songs while the latter is more balanced with softer and more acoustic songs and thus probably more interesting. In a few cities, they just are just playing one night, blending the two setlists together. One of these cities was St. Louis, which is where I caught them.
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: The Fox Theater
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 26, 2008
Opening Act: None
03. Kill Your Parents → Siva
06. Tonight, Tonight
07. A Song for a Son
09. Heavy Metal Machine → White Rabbit [Jefferson Airplane cover] → Glass' Theme
10. Landslide [Fleetwood Mac cover]
12. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
14. Cherub Rock (“Cocktail Version” tease)
15. Cherub Rock (normal version)
19. The Sounds of Silence [Simon and Garfunkel cover] → Lil' Red Riding Hood [Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs cover]
20. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [Pink Floyd cover]
After reading Pitchfork’s roast of the current Smashing Pumpkins tour and being aware that Corgan has a tendency to preach or rant or just get obnoxious at recent shows, I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of this show. However, I liked the look of the setlists and sound of the bootlegs that I have been able to get a hold of. I went on in hoping for the best.
The core touring band (singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin from the old days along with second guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes, and keyboardist Lisa Harriton) came out to some guitar feedback that led into “Tarantula”, the lead single from Zeitgeist. Next came the new single, “G.L.O.W.”. Both of these newer songs were performed well, but neither is a particularly great song; both are loud, heavily-distorted rockers, but at least “G.L.O.W.” has some good dynamics.
The band then started doing a little jam bit that I was fairly sure I recognized, and sure enough, it was the intro jam to “Siva” (dubbed “Kill Your Parents” by fans), only performed live back in the day. “Siva” is simply one of the best songs from the Pumpkins’ 1991 debut album, Gish, and its live performance was quite a treat, since they rocked it well and extended the middle break sections into creative feedback and guitar jams. This was followed by “Eye”, one of the band’s coolest songs (available on the Lost Highway soundtrack or the Rotten Apples greatest hits compilation). It is also one of the most electronic, which means live renditions never mimic the studio recording. This take was largely adapted to guitars, which made it rock even harder, and several parts were still done on keyboards to keep with the general sound.
Harriton’s keyboards on “Eye” were accompanied by second keyboardist Kristopher Pooley and by 10-string violinist Gingger Shankar. These two musicians are new to the Pumpkins’ touring band, and they appeared now and then on certain songs, totalling about half of the concert. Some songs also featured Gabrial McNair on trombone and Stephen Bradley on trumpet. So far, all of the touring members are yet to appear credited on a studio release, but it would seem that at least the core three members (Schroeder, Reyes, and Harriton) are full-time members. However, Corgan does have quite the reputation for being a perfectionist and playing all the non-drumming parts on his albums, so I suspect there is little chance of these members appearing on record. (Past touring keyboardists, such as Jonathan Melvoin and Mike Garson, and Chamberlin’s replacements during his temporary leave of absence were never considered official members, but original bassist D’arcy Wretzky’s replacement, Melissa Auf der Maur, was somewhat recognized as an official member.)
All these additional members really made “Tonight, Tonight” sound full and comparable to the orchestrally-arranged studio version. They stayed out for “A Song for a Son”, which is a new, as-of-yet-unreleased song that features some nice guitar work and classic Pumpkins dynamics. The melody is catchy, it builds up into a great full arrangement, and it has some good keyboard parts, too. Out of all the songs the reunited Pumpkins have performed, this may be my favorite.
Next came “Superchrist” (available as the b-side of “G.L.O.W.”), a long jam with just a few lyrics. Corgan has claimed the song is the sound of the band “back in free territory”, but I think it’s the sound of a band that likes to play really loud electric guitars and play mundane metal riffs. They can do better, and most of their other new songs demonstrate this.
A restructured “Heavy Metal Machine” followed. The band has played it consistently since reforming, and they continually rearrange it, in part by throwing in lyrics from other peoples’ songs. Other than the frequent “White Rabbit” segments (which are the coolest parts of the medley), on this tour they’ve usually thrown in parts of Laid Back’s “White Horse”, Ted Nugent’s “Strangehold”, and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”. (Since I am not familiar with any of these songs, I cannot verify if they were done at this performance.) Generally, though, the song just felt overlong. It seemed that the band was just reaching for any excuse to add another segment to the song, and many of these extensions were based on just using different thickly distorted guitar riffs that don’t do anything for me. It ended well, though, by segueing into the awesome Machina II rocker “Glass’ Theme”. I wonder if the lyrical content of the medley is coherent in any sense.
After that, everyone but Corgan and Schroeder left the stage, and they traded their electric guitars for acoustics to do a pleasant version of “Landslide”. Schroeder left while Reyes, Shankar, and the horn section returned for “Disarm”, which Billy claimed he wrote at 6am while standing under the St. Louis Arch. Since he also said during the show that he likes to lie and he does it frequently, something tells me his story is inaccurate. You can never be sure, though.
Billy left the stage, but the rest of the band stayed to do a beautiful take on a rearranged “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, which was never performed live before this tour. Billy then came back and led the band through four really awesome classics. “Soma” was great, but “Cherub Rock” was one of the best moments of the show. It started with a false start because Corgan forgot to switch guitars, but then the guitarists did a short smooth-jazzy “cocktail version” of the song before the band played the real thing.
The last part of the show was the Billy jam-fest. “Gossamer” is an unreleased song that has been played since the initial reunion shows, and it was given a decent rendition without doing the full half-hour version from some of the concerts last year. The song is a long, multi-segment prog-rock piece that is largely an excuse for Billy to do some extended guitar solos, but it does sound pretty cool. This was followed by two covers morphed into incredibly long jams that crossed over from the cooler prog-rock territory into the somewhat less-cool space-jam territory. “The Sounds of Silence” sounds nothing like the original and wasn't particularly worth the amount of time it took to perform. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” mostly followed this pattern, but it was superior due to a better arrangement. After a significant period of aimless noodling, the band hit their experimental jam peak when the members started changing instruments. First, Corgan set down his guitar and played on some timpani (even though he didn't really do anything that cool with them). Next, Schroeder set down his guitar and started playing with a theremin and Reyes traded her pick for a bow. The resulting segment of abstract jamming was actually pretty cool. It was out there, but it came together and worked. (It helps that theremins and the like fascinate me.)
Now, on the whole, those three jam sessions lasted about 45 minutes, and although they were mildly interesting, they weren't that great, and the worst part is that afterwards they just left. No encore, no goodbyes, nothing. They just left and the stage lights came on. I think everyone was expecting the band to come back and break out into “1979” or something similarly riveting. After all the abstract spaciness, I think everyone was sort of mellowed out and ready for a rousing conclusion. And yet it failed to materialize.
I can’t really complain too much here, especially since the band played for nearly two and a half hours and they did do a lot of my favorite songs. However, I did notice that we only got twenty songs, whereas every other show on this tour thus far has had more like 23 or 24. (“Only” must of course be used relatively here.) Again, I think the jamming only occasionally entered exciting territory, but I probably wouldn't be so negative about it if they had finished with just one or two more great songs. It would have really sealed the deal and made for a near-perfect night. As it was, I enjoyed it a lot, but it just felt like it wandered off at the end of the night and got lost out past Neptune.
The setlist is also intriguing. Most nights they've played two or three of their newly-written unreleased songs, but on this night we just got “A Song for a Son”. As much as I like it, other new compositions (“99 Floors”, “Owata”, “As Rome Burns”) were overlooked. Also noticeably absent was anything from the recent American Gothic EP, which I rather liked.
Actually, if you analyze the setlist, you’ll notice that the greatest concentration comes from the Pumpkins’ two best-selling albums (at a rate of four from each: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream. Much as I love these albums, I also love Adore, from which nothing was played, and Machina II, from which only one brief song was played. Furthermore, only one song was played from each other album (Gish, Machina, and the recent Zeitgeist). None of this would be of much concern if it weren't for this tour being billed as a 20th anniversary tour. If this is supposed to celebrate 20 years of their (discontinuous) existence, why would the song selection be so imbalanced? Wouldn't it have been cooler to play a few of the rare early songs? Couldn't one or two of the less creative extended jams have been replaced each for three or four better selections, or at least the more obnoxious segments of the jams excised in favor of five minutes towards an Adore track?
What I’m trying to say is that I liked a lot of what the band did, but the more directionless jams were a lot less engaging than they could have been. I’m happy to have my favorite band back and putting on fairly good shows, but they are holding themselves back from being truly impressive and invigorating. They have potential, but they aren't living up to it quite as fully as they could. Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to say this show was incredibly enjoyable. I never got to see the band in their original lifetime, but I am not disappointed by their current incarnation. The various replacement members actually do a decent job of living up to the original members, and they play some great material. Despite their many imperfections, they play a good show.
P.S. In Atlantic City, the band covered the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”, obviously one of my personal favorites. If anyone comes across a recording of this performance, please let me know.
[Edit 2008.12.12: Via LiveSmashingPumpkins.com I found the cover of "Nowhere Man" from the Atlantic City show. In fact, if you're willing to pay, you can get mp3s, flacs, or CDs of soundboard recordings from each night of the tour. I bought this concert and the single "Nowhere Man" track, and the quality is great.]
[Edit 2014.10.12: The concert recording is now available from livedownloads.com.]