Smashing Pumpkins at United Center

I get the impression that Billy Corgan put a lot of energy in crafting this extremely detailed Smashing Pumpkins show. I also get the feeling Corgan, however, may be the only one that understood the through-line of the performance. From where I was sitting- admittedly somewhat of a casual Pumpkins fan- this show was all over the place, and even at times- utterly ridiculous.

Let me first say that the visuals throughout were absolutely stunning. There was very little light on the band themselves for most of the show, so it seemed purposeful that the crowd’s attention was set on the large moving video screens behind the players. But even the visuals chosen seemed to have little coherence from section to section. Billy came out by himself at the start to play ‘Disarm’ against a backdrop of childhood photos and video of himself, adorned some of the time with devil horns and the ‘ole 666, other times with Jesus imagery, and the rest, well, we’ll have to leave up to his therapist. When the Pumpkins were all on stage and playing the hits, there were clips of the music videos playing behind them. All the focus was on the screens to the point it seemed the band was merely providing a soundtrack for the images- which gave more of an archival, museum-like feel than a rock show.

As I mentioned, I’m a casual fan, and I feel the show wasn’t exactly for me. During the setlist there were stretches of long-winded deep cuts, so maybe the show was directed at the die-hard fan? Twice throughout the set there were 30-second videos projected of Mark McGrath (singer of 90’s band Sugar Ray) dressed up as a vaudeville barker introducing songs, so that was a little bizarre. At one point, there was a spoken word poetry / video from Corgan himself which might have been interesting if it weren’t lodged hamfistedly into the middle of a Smashing Pumpkins concert.

Then there were the cover songs. It was great to hear the live SP rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, which got well-deserved radio attention in 2008. And maybe if it were done with a little more care, Corgan may have *may have* been able to pull off Bowie’s Space Oddity. Corgan gesticulated esoterically throughout, and the band played with the exuberance of a high-school act playing the one song that everybody knows. If that doesn’t sound ambitious enough, at the 2/3rds mark, Corgan sat an an electric piano and sang… Stairway to Heaven. I guess choosing to play these monster classics is pretty daring, but even guitarist James Iha had to sheepishly reassure the crowd afterwards “Stairway to Heaven… Smashing Pumpkins… It all makes sense.”

It didn’t.

At the end of the day, and despite all the narcissism, Billy Corgan still couldn’t ruin the great songs of the Smashing Pumpkins. The band was energetic and technically phenomenal. James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin were in top form. (So we’ll overlook the part of the show where a golden papal-like shrine maneuvered throughout the audience with Corgan’s likeness on it.) Original Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretsky was absent from the lineup, with differing explanations from both camps.

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