The Smashing Pumpkins @ iHeartRadio Theater - June 19, 2012
I can barely believe it myself, but I'm about to write an extremely positive review. Of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Longtime Fucking Nostalgic readers are well aware of my previous and - to put it mildly - EXTREMELY vitriolic stance against polarizing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. Back during the Great Reissues Rush of 2011, I chastised Corgan for re-releasing the classic Gish and Siamese Dream while in the same breath criticizing his contemporaries like Sonic Youth and Pavement for appealing to fans' nostalgic sensibilities by playing their classic hits during their live shows. Basically, I called Billy Corgan a douche and told him to go fuck himself, a sentiment that was pretty well solidified by the fact that we created a "Billy Corgan Is A Douche" tag so that readers could easily find other posts in which I called the man a giant douche.
But then a funny thing happened: the world dished up some interesting and hilarious irony that would make me eat my words. The relatively new Smashing Pumpkins lineup released one of their strongest albums in years in the form of Oceania yesterday, coinciding with an enlightening and sincere interview with Corgan on Howard Stern that painted the '90s icon as less of an everything-hating curmudgeon as he'd been depicted prior than a once-revered artist who wanted everyone to shut the hell up about how he hasn't done anything worthwhile since the 1990s. Both the new album and interview are well worth a listen or several, as they drive home a point that Corgan - however directly or indirectly - has been trying to make for a long time: Yes, the Pumpkins had a lot of amazing songs that we'll always treasure, but to hold them up as an unimpeachable standard for a band - hell, for any kind of artist - leads to the damning assumption that their best days are behind them and that there's nothing left for their future.
Admittedly, we can all cross a line in our nostalgic leanings where we go from fondly remembering songs and albums that had a special place in our formative years to obsessively "protecting" that past from any sort of change. And with all of the changes The Smashing Pumpkins have gone through - particularly during this past tumultuous decade - listening to Oceania made me damn excited, for the first time in a long time, to hear what Billy Corgan and the new Pumpkins could do.
And then I won tickets from P.C. Richard & Son to go to the band's private record release show at the iHeartRadio Theater in Tribeca last night. Kudos to whoever turned the Irony Hose on full-blast there.
After easily getting our wristbands at the venue an hour before the Pumpkins were scheduled to take the stage, I retreated to a nearby pub to grab drinks and listen to some amazing stories about the band from my friend and Smashing Pumpkins superfan Jay Sharp to prep for my first time seeing them live (and his 20th - like I said, SUPERFAN). Already intrigued by Corgan's friendly demeanor during his Howard Stern interview, I was glad to hear that the frontman had a history of being very cool and open to his diehard fans -- the ones who believed in his vision regardless of his twists and turns, not the "diehards" who thought he was washed up after Machina or even Mellon Collie and should've called it quits (myself partly included there).
With a fresh perspective in my mind and a couple of Jamesons in my belly, I entered the iHeartRadio Theater just a few minutes before the band's 8pm sharp start. As some corporate puppet droned on about checking-in and downloading their iPhone app, the crowd cheered as bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, and finally the iconic frontman himself took the stage to kick off a short but incredibly sweet set for the 200-person audience... with a cover of KISS's "Black Diamond."
A seemingly left-field choice in my mind but one that was apparently a staple of their recent live shows, Corgan and the band's rendition of "Black Diamond" set a hard-tinged classic rock tone that flew in the face of expectations for a new record release show. The Pumpkins seemingly cemented this theme by immediately launching into their own series of classics, leaving me cheering dumbfounded as the raw low-range guitar riff heralding "Zero" hit my ears. Having spent the day rocking out to Oceania over and over and listening to the forward-thinking musings of Corgan, I was definitely NOT expecting to hear the bastion single from their 1995 masterpiece Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness performed this well with a lineup that had long since left D'Arcy, James, and Jimmy behind.
And then, fuck me, they kept at it. "Zero" bled into the seething rage of album-mate "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," which in turn found the band digging even deeper into their classic catalog for the cathartic Siamese Dream anthem "Today." I'd have handily lost any bet I'd made on that opening song lineup, but the Pumpkins' choice to seemingly shower us with nostalgia became crystal clear when, after a brief pause, Corgan announced that they would finally play the first three songs off of their brand-new album.
As the interlocking guitar, bass, and drumwork of Oceania opener "Quasar" thundered across the venue, it was clear that this was the moment The Smashing Pumpkins had really taken the stage. The power the band poured into this opener defied any rote replaying of songs from the past - Mike thrashed at his drumkit while Billy and Jeff traded intricate licks and Nicole laid down a chugging bassline, swaying in a way reminiscent of predecessors D'Arcy and Melissa Auf der Mar but entirely her own. The running instrumentals of "Quasar" gave way to one of my favorite new songs, "Panopticon," with guitars and bass serving as a synchronous chorus of harmonies over Mike's primal drumming, all surging and layering under Billy's classic vocals to pull off a rock song that stops just short of being an opera.
Track 3 of Oceania, "The Celestials" proved to be a special treat. It was the first time the band had ever played it live, and they masterfully moved from the "Disarm"-esque acoustic opening to burst into the gripping guitar lines that soared with Billy and Nicole's vocal harmonizing over the refrain. It was at this point that the band stopped and then dipped back into rock history to close out the set with an outstanding rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Jay's face says a thousand words here, guys.
Of course we stood roaring and clapping for an encore, and the Pumpkins more than obliged, firing back with the opening drumroll that heralded Siamese Dream opener "Cherub Rock." The connections between The Smashing Pumpkins of yesteryear and The Smashing Pumpkins of 2012 were crystal clear by this point. Here was a band that, through several iterations and even more trials, has retained and refined their past but hasn't remained enslaved to it. That point was hammered home with their absolutely raw closer "X.Y.U.," replete with alternately thundering and twitchy riffs and primeval screaming. With those final notes, the band left the stage and the house lights went up, ending an absolutely dense and mindblowing hour with one of the best bands around.
As we walked back over to the pub for more drinks, I paused as I was hit by a powerful realization: the only thing that disappointed me about my first time seeing The Smashing Pumpkins live was that they didn't play MORE new songs. I'd imagine that's what Corgan wanted us to realize: that his crew has evolved in fits and spurts to finally achieve a lineup of truly likeminded individuals who have power and talent to burn.
Keep it coming, Billy. We'll be watching.