Oct. 7, 2011
Better than: Fasting.
Perhaps we shouldn't use Friday night's Jewish holiday for the purposes of a rock concert review, but Billy Corgan has a lot he should probably be atoning for: being a control freak, not asking two of his original band members back for the group's reunion in 2006, occasionally abusing fans, and choosing a 19-year-old kid to fill the shoes of the Pumpkins' seasoned first drummer -- not to mention the fact that Corgan's hair was way cooler back in 1993 (back when he had hair). So it goes.
Friday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Corgan must have known that many in the audience were thinking about these things.
When the band launched into the classic lullaby/stadium rock crusher "Soma" from its breakthrough 1993 album, Siamese Dream, the lyric "Nothing left to say" evoked a collective, ironic chuckle. It went down like an inside joke that Corgan shared with the crowd of old diehards, all of whom were well aware that the Pumpkins these days are a shadow of their old, glorious selves, yet still pushing forward with new material and flashing middle fingers to everyone who dislikes it.
As someone who's heard every Pumpkins album and B-sides at least 43,497 times, this critic was surprised (to say the least) when he didn't recognize the set's first two songs and the handful of new, still-unreleased tracks interspersed throughout the set. But even casual fans could have figured out which songs were new by the somewhat lackluster reactions they got: Most of the latest tunes were were either unremarkable, or imitations of their genre-defining predecessors from more than a decade ago.
That said, Billy Corgan and his by-now-unrecognizable lineup (Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Nicole Fiorentino on bass, and Mike Byrne on drums) weren't not to be underestimated or dismissed that easily.
After the new songs, the Pumpkins turned the Fox into a mosh pit with fan favorite "Geek U.S.A." then kept the energy high with the anthemic singalong hit "Muzzle."
Somewhat surprisingly (or perhaps not), the band was at its tightest and most formidable when it dragged songs from the Pumpkins' first album, 1991's Gish. Psychedelic rocker "Siva" was alive and kicking, featuring an extended breakdown that had evolved from its acid roots to something darker and heavier. Even the relatively unknown, relatively mediocre tune "Window Paine" made a surprisingly un-mediocre appearance.
Aside from the yawn-worthy new stuff (which notably eschewed the band's reunion album, Zeitgeist), the band chose a compelling, drool-worthy setlist, including well-known hits like "Cherub Rock" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," plus gems like "Silverfuck" and a gorgeous if rushed rendition of "For Martha" to close out the three-song encore. Counting the latter, material from every Pumpkins album through 1998's Adore made an appearance.
For headbangers, the band pulled out "Thru the Eyes of Ruby," which segued rather nicely into a few sections from "I Am One," the debut single from Gish. B-sides like "Pissant," "Frail and Bedazzled," "Starla," and "Obscured" rounded out the set of about two dozen songs. The drums, however, were a bit too loud and the overall sound was unfortunately a bit muddy for a solid, medium-sized venue like the Fox.
Before the Smashing Pumpkins, the Fancy Space People made an appearance that could only be described as puzzling. They were what KISS would have been if the band had been born and raised in whatever equivalent San Francisco has on Mars, complete with glittery silver capes, and bizarre fake accents that sounded more British than extraterrestrial. But gimmicks can only go so far, and Fancy Space People didn't bring much else to the table.
Say what you will about the Pumpkins, Corgan, and their mixed bag of new material, but, unlike countless other lackluster reunions (Limp Bizkit, No Doubt, and Jane's Addiction's latest attempt come to mind), they got at least one thing right -- it's still all about the music. No gimmicks required.
Personal bias: One of the saddest moments of my life came after seeing Billy Corgan perform with Zwan. Corgan was shaking hands with audience members and stopped at the guy directly next to me. So close!
Overheard in the crowd: "A song about getting large with these fucks? Fuck this shit!" (a response to the Fancy Space People's announcement that they'd be playing a song about "something very large, titanic even").
Most uninspiring performance of a classic: "Bullet with Butterfly Wings."
Most kickass performance of a classic: "Siva."