My ears are ringing, my eyes are stinging and I may never sleep again. The Smashing Pumpkins released their eighth album (ninth if, like me, you like to include Pisces Iscariot) on June 19th, 2012, and they kicked off the United States portion of their Oceania tour at the Comcast Arena in Everett, WA (just north of Seattle) on October 10th, 2012. I happened to miss the Zeitgeist tour, and say what you will about the album, I was still disappointed to have done so. The last time I saw The Smashing Pumpkins (I have seen Billy Corgan’s TheFutureEmbrace and The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex in between) was during their Machina/The Machines of God tour in the year 2000. If you recall, this was the same year that the band originally “broke up”. They announced that they were breaking up on KROQ’s Kevin and Bean show the morning they were in Los Angeles—the morning I went to see them. The combination of energy and (dare I?) melancholy of the fans that night was intangible. You will never see anything like that at a Smashing Pumpkins show again. So here is what I am trying to say: It has been TWELVE YEARS since I saw the Smashing Pumpkins live, and the last time I saw them live was the first show after they announced their break-up.
Tonight was a big deal for me.
Tonight was a huge deal for me.
Billy Corgan and the new line-up of Pumpkins (Fiorentino, Schroeder and Byrne—Byrne is amazing, by the way. I’ll get into that later) had the pressure turned on. They may not have known it, but they did. They did not let me down. Now, I am completely guilty of being quite the Smashing Pumpkins fanboy, but don’t let that fact dissuade you from the idea that I am capable of unbiased or critical thought. In fact, I posit that my long term following of the band leaves me uniquely qualified to make the following commentary.
They tore it up.
They played every song on the new album for the first half of the concert. Following that, they started with a cover of Bowie’s Ground Control to Major Tom, followed with a brutal rendition of X.Y.U. which, for those of you who remembered the vigor with which the band would play this song throughout the Mellon Collie, Adore and even Machina tours, it still carried the same venom, the same animosity, the same driving rage that kicks the energy of the fans into overdrive. They hit everything an old school fan could have wanted to hear following that: Disarm, Today, Cherub Rock, Tonite Tonite (opened by the Tonite Reprise version of the song, so sick!) Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Zero and Ava Adore. I could have asked for Rocket and The Everlasting Gaze, but I cannot possibly complain. Now, I have not said a lot about the Oceania half of the concert, which may mislead you into believing that the strongest half was, as Billy put it, the “Dusties.”
Wrong. As happy as I was to be able to hear my beloved Pumpkins nail those old songs, the new album, and their performance of it, was hands down the best part of the evening. There were a few fumbles which, in fairness, I will mention. They played the songs in the same order they appear on the album. I was waiting for the fourth song, Violet Rays, because it has become one of my absolute favourites on the album. But there were two performances that blew me away which I was not expecting.
One Diamond, One Heart, which originally I thought was one of the songs that sounded a little more canned—like the last half of Zeitgeist (listen to Bring the Light on Zeitgeist followed immediately after One Diamond, One Heart and you’ll hear what I am talking about). The live performance brought a whole new level of passion to this song. It sounds like a different song live. Most importantly, there was something about the way that Billy enunciated “I’m always on your side,” while he pointed out to the crowd, no doubt in his own eyes, pointing at specific individuals each and every time. Or maybe I just saw him pointing at them—and me. If you have been a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan as long as I have, hearing him sing those five words while looking and pointing right at you has a meaning which few others can understand. Five weeks after suffering one of the worst events in my life, I met Billy Corgan when I went to see the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex and hugged him. It was a turning point for me in a lot of ways (not just because of Billy, but that’s a story for another day).
The other song that I was not expecting to move me was Pale Horse. When I first read the lyrics to Pale Horse, I wanted to love it (I read the lyrics before I had a chance to listen to the album), but after hearing the song, it never settled into my bones the way songs like Panopticon, Violet Rays and My Love is Winter did. But Billy brought his passion into this song, his voice that you either love to hate or you just love for it’s raw quality. Specifically when he uttered the repeated lyric, “Please come back,” I felt connected to the artist in a way that I have not felt since Adore.
Now, I have not said a lot about the instrumentation. Most of the songs were performed almost exactly as you hear them on the album, which for some people is a pro, but not always for me—at least with the Smashing Pumpkins. I am used to them playing wildly different versions of their songs live, and when that, largely, did not happen, I was a little surprised. The exception was a majority of the guitar solos. Billy has already gone down in history in a lot of charts as one of the best guitarists of all time. Even so, I think that this aspect of his music often goes overlooked for all of the other qualities, so when he (often accompanied by Schroeder) blasted off into unique guitar solos in the middle of otherwise familiar songs, it not only filled the empty hole I was beginning to feel, it lifted me back to memories of Porcelina and Thru the Eyes of Ruby being melded so craftily into the same song that I could not tell where one ended and the other began.
Other low points were the fumbling of the beginning of Violet Rays (this was not why the song did not end up standing up with the others. I still loved it), and a distinct lack of timing and energy when they played Chimera, which was rather unfortunate because although it is not one of my favourite songs on the album, I know that it is one of the most popular from reading various blogs and forums about the album, so I am sure that a few people were disappointed with the dismount on that one.
This was the first time I have seen the new line-up live, so let me say this: Schroeder has more energy than Iha, but plays just as well, and outside of having a significantly less pretty face (who could possibly follow up Iha’s loveliness?) his guitar work was solid. I think that, after giving it significant thought that Fiorentino is my favourite of the female back-up vocalists. I know there are a lot of hardcore D’Arcy fans, and I love her too—but if you have not yet listened to Fiorentino’s vocals, you are missing out. So that leaves us with Byrne. Did you know that this kid was born in 1990? The new drummer for the Smashing Pumpkins is currently 22 years old. He joined the band when he was 19. Gish, the Smashing Pumpkin’s first album, was released in 1991. Think about that for a minute. The career of the Smashing Pumpkins is as long as his life. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a 19 year old kid and joining The Smashing Pumpkins? Now, beyond his age, the other thing we have to note is that Jimmy Chamberlin has been the driving force behind the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins for a long time. When they kicked him out of the band, the next album they did was Adore. Think about the reaction to Adore when it first came out and consider how important Chamberlin was to the sound of the band. No one was going to be able to follow in Chamberlin’s footsteps. He brought a unique approach to the Smashing Pumpkins (I have always thought his background in jazz had a lot to do with this, but he is also just a brilliant drummer). I don’t know a lot of people, whatever they think of the band as a whole, who are willing to say that Chamberlin is anything less than one of the best drummers to come out of the 90’s. The fact that Byrne (again, as a 22 year old) could pick up where Chamberlin left off and drive forward anthems like Panopticon and Chimera is unbelievable.
So, yeah, I had a great time.
I wanted to say one more thing. When I was driving down to the Comcast Arena, my fiance told me that when she told her boss she was going to see the Smashing Pumpkins that his response was that they were irrelevant. That is an interesting word to throw at this particular band. I am not entirely sure of the justification behind this statement. I imagine his meaning was along the lines of “they are no longer fresh and new,” (One Direction is, though!).
It would be obvious, and too easy, to attempt to discuss the influence that this band has had on music, and the bands that are “new and fresh” today (One Direction excluded). So, rather than pick apart the “irrelevant” argument the easy way, I would rather discuss something else. The songs on Oceania were originally part of a 44-song project called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope which were released one by one as free downloads, so that you could hear the album as the band was creating it. While an argument can be made for the success of this method (Oceania ended up being released the old-fashioned way), what is important to take away from this is that it is a reaction to the violently shifting music industry and what the proliferation of the internet and “free” music has done to the industry. (Corgan’s first reaction was Machina II, which, if you recall, was also released for free online). There are not many musicians and bands who are reacting to the changing music industry (Amanda Palmer is a very notable exception, she released her last album, Theatre is Evil, as a Kickstarter project), but I believe firmly that those who are, The Smashing Pumpkins included, need to be watched very closely right now. The future of the music industry is going to come from one of these inventive artists. I don’t know if it is going to come from Billy—but he is contributing to this search, and needs to be paid attention as well.
Be careful how you throw a word like irrelevant around—I can’t think of many uses of it that do not betray abominate ignorance of the subject you are describing.
P.S. I started playing Oceania in the background as I began writing this. Wildflower (the last song) finished up as I wrote the very last part. Wicked!