As a music venue, the Riviera Theatre is one of the worst in the city of Chicago. In fact, it kind of borders on abysmal. I dislike it so much that I’ve had a personal ban on going to shows there for the last several years. That was a result of attending multiple shows there and having normally great live bands turn in terrible performances. The common denominator among them all was the Riv, so I imposed a ban, vowing to only break it in the case of a show so rare it’d kill me to miss it. This is why it has been close to 7 years since I last set foot in the venue. Naturally then, I was by no means excited to get back there, but a situation finally emerged that I could not pass up. The Smashing Pumpkins were returning to their hometown for the first time in a long time (not counting the charity show they played at Metro last fall), and The Riv just so happened to be the moderately small venue they chose to play. They could have sold out a venue at least 3x the size, which made the experience special. Not only that, but they’ve been putting a dent in their 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” project and are set to unleash their ninth full length “Oceania” next month. So add in the chance to preview some of that and despite my apprehension about the venue along with how well this revamped lineup is doing, I felt it was something I needed to see at least once.
One other reason I was a bit excited about the show was that the band Light FM was opening. They’re out on their first national tour in support of their freshly released album “Buzz Kill City”. I’ve been listening to that super catchy, fuzzed out synth pop record quite a bit in the last couple weeks, and was interested to see how it translated in a live setting. There’s also a certain charm to see a band in a state of relative infancy (they’ve been around awhile but are just now gaining national attention) try to win over a whole new set of fans. Given that the start time was a prompt 7PM, The Riv wasn’t yet at full capacity when Light FM took the stage. The band was still grateful to those that did show up early, and in my opinion it was worth it. They breezed through a 20 minute set, giving them only enough time to perform a handful of songs, but making each one of them count. They may not be the most active band when on stage, something that might make sense given the sort of music they make, but sometimes those things need to be sacrificed to ensure the quality is there. Similarly, it’s comforting that Light FM take a very basic approach to their live show and are successful. There are so many bands that feel the need to dress up their performance with a gimmick to try and set themselves apart, but more often than not it’s a measure to try and counter mediocrity. One of the bands on this bill fits that description perfectly, and I’ll get to them in a minute. On the whole, Light FM’s set was pretty good, in spite of only getting a relatively brief snapshot of what they’re capable of. Those that were there seemed to enjoy what they heard too, even if they had just shown up to get as close to Billy Corgan as possible. This is a promising young band with plenty of growing left to do, and the more time spent playing live the faster that growth will occur.
The two bands opening for the Smashing Pumpkins on Friday were hand-picked by Billy Corgan. That’s probably the only reason that Fancy Space People were on the bill. Corgan is essentially serving as a “mentor” for the band, pulling them from relative obscurity and working closely with them on the relatively small amount of music they’ve released so far. Their debut EP was released on Starry Records, which is directly connected with Coldwater Studios, both of which are owned and operated by Kerry Brown, of the former Chicago band Catherine. Corgan has known Brown from way back in the day when the Pumpkins shared a practice space with Catherine in Chicago. More on that connection later, but the point being Corgan has his fingerprints all over Fancy Space People. My initial impression of the 8-piece band that showed up on stage was one of odd curiosity. I wasn’t terribly far from the stage, but from my vantage point it appeared that this was an all-female band dressed to the nines in sparkly leotards. Upon closer examination however, and after noticing that one of the band members clearly had facial hair, I came to realize that at least half the band was wearing long-haired wigs and all sorts of makeup, effectively creating a gender-bending androgynous situation. That was the first oddity. The second was how committed the band was to staying “in character”. They consistently referred to the crowd as “Earthlings” and spoke of offering up intergalactic protection from forces that might otherwise threaten to harm us. The song lyrics also backed up the banter. It was pure theater, and entertaining as it was, the whole spectacle wasn’t enough to distract from the moderately poor quality of the music itself. First of all, having 8 members in your band for a sound that clearly doesn’t require it is simply excessive and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of the parts were doubled over just to add some more power to the songs. Secondly, while there’s certainly a void in the glam rock/hard rock genre since Kiss has become less and less active over the years, is that a void that needs to be filled? Different strokes for different folks, I guess. There was nothing outright terrible about Fancy Space People’s set, but it’s clear these guys and girls need to work on their sound first and their stage presence second. Make some songs worth hearing and tone down the rhetoric a little and people will pay attention. It seemed to me that much of the crowd was apathetic towards the band or scoffed at how showy the whole thing was. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night though was how Fancy Space People effectively bridged the gap in sonic styles between Light FM and the Smashing Pumpkins. By incorporating the synths of Light FM and the psychedelics of the Pumpkins, the three-act bill ultimately made sense, and that’s at least something Billy Corgan got right.
Prior to speaking directly about how the Smashing Pumpkins’ set at The Riv was, I’d like to issue a small disclaimer first. My history with this band has been a tumultuous one. The Smashing Pumpkins were a staple of my years growing up, and records like “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” were (and remain) essential listening for fans of 90s rock. So many people loved this band, which is why it was such a shame to see personnel like D’arcy Wretzky and James Iha go. When the Pumpkins broke up in December of 2000, that was the end of an era for me. In my opinion, the real Smashing Pumpkins died that day, and when Billy Corgan put out the call to re-establish the band in 2005 sans everyone but drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, to me it hasn’t been the same since. There have been multiple lineup changes since then, with the only constant being Corgan, and devoted fans will argue that’s all you need. After all, one of the main reasons people keep leaving the band is because Corgan takes on a dictator-like status, seeking to control every aspect of the Pumpkins sound and going so far as to re-record the parts of other members if he feels they are not good enough. Then there are the post-reunion live shows, which often find Corgan in a less than jovial mood and berating the crowd for getting upset the band isn’t playing more of the hits. It would seem that the Smashing Pumpkins version 2.0 are seeking to erase the legacy they developed in the early years. That’s what disappoints me the most I think. But I also give some modicum of credit to Corgan for some of the ballsy moves he’s made in the last few years. Projects like the 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope”, which has been getting released piece by piece since winter of 2009 is a daring and bold attempt to be different. As that song cycle continues to progress, the majority of those songs have also been released as free downloads, which is Corgan saying he hopes people will try them and be inspired to purchase a limited edition box of them packaged together. In the last couple years the live shows have gotten less angry and more devoted to the power of the music, likely because many of the old fans have quit following the band and the ones that remain truly believe in what he’s doing. I consider myself a purist, disliking much of what the Pumpkins have done recently but still intrigued enough to keep an eye and ear on them in case something brilliant happens. So with fingers crossed, my hope on Friday night at the Riv was to try and enjoy what would likely be a set heavy on post-2000 material. Believe it or not, Corgan & Co. managed to actually surprise me.
As the Smashing Pumpkins took the stage at The Riv, I immediately felt out of my depth. They launched into the epic “Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover” and immediately backed it up with “Panopticon”, the trio of which kick off the upcoming Pumpkins record “Oceania”. Very few (if any) people have heard that upcoming record yet, and while the crowd was cheering because the band was on stage, there was a sense of bewilderment to it. You can’t sing along to these songs because you don’t know them and have no idea where they’re going. The first bit of genuine excitement came with the black curtain behind the band dropping to reveal two large, mirrored propellers and an intricate lighting rig. Yet that unveiling was marred by the lights all shining on full blast at once, effectively blinding the audience for a bit as their pupils played catch up. As to how good the new songs at the start of the show were, they’re far more psychedelic in nature than the older Pumpkins stuff, and The Riv’s shoddy sound system created a much muddier and uninspiring mix than the songs themselves probably deserved. My bet is they sound better on record.
The first surprise of the evening came four songs in, when the band played the 1992 “I Am One” b-side “Starla”. That one really separated the hardcore fans from the more casual fans, and it would turn out to be just the beginning of a night largely devoted to looking back. Many of the songs were distinctly old school, but it was about the farthest thing from a greatest hits parade that you could get. The first third of the set was rounded out via deep cuts from “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, with “Mellon Collie…” single “Muzzle” sandwiched in between. There was a weirdly balanced mayhem as the set progressed, with a pair of songs from “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3” getting played, but having the first two volumes completely ignored. Also completely ignored were “Zeitgeist” and both of the “Machina” records. Outside of about half the “Oceania” record, the main focus appeared to be on “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, along with b-sides and outtakes from those records. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to “Pisces Iscariot”, the rarities compilation from the band’s earliest recordings, that I was fumbling to remember cuts like “Frail and Bedazzled” and “Obscured”. Yet there’s also something discomforting about the few oddities that the Smashing Pumpkins pulled out of their back pockets on Friday night. Those b-sides and outtakes were cut from the main records for a reason, even if they were put onto compilations later. Very few bands can claim their b-sides are nearly as good as their main catalogues, and the Pumpkins are probably not one of them. So why whip them out and why now? Well, turns out there will be deluxe reissues of “Gish”, “Siamese Dream” and “Pisces Iscariot” before the end of the year. So was it promotionally motivated? You bet it was. Does it make them any less interesting to hear? Not really, as much of it is better than the band’s later catalogue. As evidenced by their touring around “Zeitgeist” a few years ago, Corgan seems to have a distaste for any of the old Pumpkins singles. Hence only four made the cut for the evening, with “Muzzle”, “Siva”, “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” each clearly garnering the loudest crowd responses of the night and some intense sing-alongs. After the show I heard a few fans grumbling about the lack of easily recognizable songs in the set, but saying it was still “better than a few years ago, when they played even less than that”.
If there was one thing I learned from watching this Smashing Pumpkins set, it was that Billy Corgan is a much better guitarist than I’ve ever given him credit for. Sure, he’s been responsible for writing and composing almost the entire Pumpkins catalogue, but I always figured that he took the ideas of James Iha or whatever guitarist that was in the band and repurposed them for his own self-aggrandization. With more nameless and faceless personnel surrounding Corgan than ever before though, it’s less and less likely they’re writing these brilliant parts that he’s taking advantage of. They seem to be more about following his lead than challenging it. And you know what? It works for them. The dynamic allows for some give and take between all of the band members, even if they’re not as talented as those that came before them. The back-and-forth guitar lines between Corgan and Jeff Schroeder on “Siva” gave the song a little fresher life than it does on record. Bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne both kept a strong rhythmic dynamic to most of the songs, and the former’s vocal harmonies intertwined remarkably well with Corgan’s nasal tones. You still should probably call this the Billy Corgan Show though, because whenever he wasn’t playfully sparring with his bandmates, he was off on some extended guitar solo. Over 2.5 hours, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed somebody take more solos than Corgan did. It reached the point where it was excessive and also physically painful for Corgan himself. He cracked a smile through much of it, but there was a point during an intense version of “Silverfuck” that he had to shake his hand out because it had gotten so cramped up from all the soloing. All that intricate guitar work ultimately served a purpose, which was to unite the past, present and future of the Smashing Pumpkins under one large umbrella. He purposely chose the more prog-rock and psychedelic moments out of the older material to merge it better with the newer stuff that places distinct emphasis on it. On the couple songs that didn’t serve that unifying purpose, he forced them into it by drawing them out into longer arrangements, accented with more solos. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad.
At the start of the encore, Corgan came out to deliver some of the only stage banter of the entire night. After acknowledging his brother up in the balcony, he talked briefly about the early days of the band and how they shared a practice space on the North Side of Chicago with this great local band Catherine. Catherine broke up in the late 90s, but Corgan has remained friends with them and has been working towards getting them to reunite. So it was with great pride that he re-introduced Catherine to the world as they performed together on stage for the first time in over a decade. They played a two song set, with Corgan contributing some guitar, and it was some great post-punk rock that appeared to indicate Catherine hadn’t lost much of a step. “A fine wine we are not,” one of the guys in Catherine proclaimed before launching into “Broken Bunny Bird” off their 1994 record “Sorry!”. It was exciting that they were back together, but a younger-skewing crowd gave clueless stares and polite applause to the band as most were entirely unfamiliar with the material. Most likely many were disappointed that Corgan was giving the encore time to this other band rather than playing more Pumpkins songs. The truth is, it was a little shocking that Corgan yielded the stage to anyone given his love of the spotlight. To close out the night for good, he seemed to want to throw the crowd a bone and leave them wanting more by breaking out “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”. Ironically it was the one moment of the entire set where Corgan appeared to be uninspired. He raced through the song at a faster than normal pace, like he was trying to remove a band-aid that was stuck to a thick patch of hair. The hope was the pain would go away quicker if he just ripped it right off in one quick motion. The crowd was more than satisfied though, and smiles were easy to come by. For a night that was largely built on the unfamiliarity of new material, rarities and deep cuts, it was just a little surprising they were smiling at all.
Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover (Oceania)
Starla (I Am One single b-side)
Geek U.S.A. (Siamese Dream)
Muzzle (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Window Paine (Gish)
Lightning Strikes (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
Soma (Siamese Dream)
Frail and Bedazzled (Siamese Dream outtake)
Silverfuck (Siamese Dream)
Obscured (Gish outtake, Today single b-side)
Pale Horse (Oceania)
Thru the Eyes of Ruby (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Cherub Rock (Siamese Dream)
Owata (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
My Love Is Winter (Oceania)
For Martha (Adore)
Idiot (Catherine song)
Broken Bunny Bird (Catherine song)
Bullet with Butterfly Wings (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Remaining Tour Dates
Oct 17 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
Oct 18 New York, NY Terminal 5
Oct 19 Providence, RI Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Oct 21 Boston, MA Orpheum Theater
Oct 22 Philadelphia, PA Tower Theater