Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Smashing Pumpkins - Live 2012.10.18 Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, Missouri

Although the number of original members of the Smashing Pumpkins remaining in the band has dwindled to just one (Zwan now officially had more original members of the Pumpkins than their current configuration), the band (i.e. Billy Corgan) is still making music – and despite the annoying production qualities of their recent recordings, some of the songwriting and instrumental work is actually quite good. After being surprised by Oceania, and slowly coming to mildly appreciate the rest of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project, I decided it was worth seeing them live when they came to my town.

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: Chaifetz Arena
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 18 October 2012
Opening Act: Anberlin

01. Keyboard intro → Quasar
02. Panopticon
03. The Celestials
04. Violet Rays
05. My Love Is Winter
06. One Diamond, One Heart
07. Pinwheels
08. Oceania
09. Pale Horse
10. The Chimera
11. Glissandra
12. Inkless
13. Wildflower
14. Space Oddity [David Bowie cover]
15. X.Y.U.
16. Disarm
17. Tonite Reprise → Tonight, Tonight
18. Bullet with Butterfly Wings
19. Shock Me (tease) → Detroit Rock City (tease) [KISS covers]
20. A Song for a Son
21. Guitar instrumental → Zero
22. Cherub Rock

23. Ava Adore
24. Guitar Duel → Whole Lotta Love (tease) [Led Zeppelin cover]
25. Muzzle

Last time I saw the Smashing Pumpkins, they were playing a greatest-hits setlist based on their 20th anniversary. This time, they're promoting a new record and doing their best to get people to listen to it. If the first half of the setlist looks oddly familiar, it's because it's the exact tracklist of the new album, Oceania, which they've been playing in sequence at every night of the tour. The album is clearly an attempt to connect with their core audience that fell in love with Siamese Dream, as the clever use of melodic guitar hooks and impressive drumming dominate the album. It also features a surprising amount of keyboards (some almost overtly retro and cheesy) and some of the best bass parts ever seen on a Pumpkins release.

Corgan's many interviews lead one to believe that he is certainly trying to talk up his new bandmates and prove that they play key roles in the recordings. He might actually be telling the truth – new bassist and backing vocalist Nicole Fiorentino is at least more consistent than D'arcy was, even if she isn't necessarily better; the very young drummer Mike Byrne picks up right where Jimmy Chamberlin left off; and guitarist Jeff Schroeder, despite appearing even more shy than James Iha, somehow manages to meet Corgan's high standards. It's hard to tell how much of the guitarwork on Oceania is actually Jeff's (my guess is not much), but the basswork and drumming is almost assuredly from the new members.

Seeing the band perform live the new album in its entirety might have been cool if I hadn't bought the record yet, but since I had, it was a bit boring. The songs weren't really rearranged, there were no extended jams or new parts, and no extra members filled out the sound. While some of the guitarwork was exciting to see live, some parts were left unused, and samples were too often used to add the extra keyboard and percussion parts. In some cases, it appeared that those parts could have been played by the members of the band (or a touring keyboardist!) but instead the members just stood there. I was surprised; it struck me as inauthentic and unnecessary. All four members did play some keyboards, but not as much as one might expect for the work of setting up the instruments for each member.

After playing the album, stage hands cleared all the keyboards, as if the band was now returning to "normal". Few samples were heard from here on, and the band seemed to loosen up just enough to notice. They played a rocked-up cover of Bowie's "Space Oddity", which was great aside from some odd vocal rephrasings, before digging into a quick overview of some of the band's biggest singles. Unlike previous tours, where the band mixed major hits with top-notch album cuts and assorted oddities, there were no surprises to be found after the Bowie cover. A few songs were slightly rearranged, but those familiar with the Pumpkins' live history would not find anything new.

Many of the remaining songs felt predictable and relatively uninspired. "X.Y.U." has never been one of my favorites, and this rendition offered nothing noteworthy. "Zero" and "Cherub Rock" were also played straight by the numbers (except for the pleasantly cascading guitar instrumental preceding "Zero"), and even "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" was played conventionally after starting off with a heavier take borrowed from live renditions from years ago.

"Disarm" seemed like a lazy choice, as the band played a lackluster version dominated by a sampled string section. I feared the same treatment would be given for "Tonight, Tonight", but I was proven wrong. It instead began with the low-key "Tonite Reprise" as an intro, featuring Jeff on E-Bow. After playing about half of that version, Mike began playing the easily-recognized drumroll to lead into the full-band version of the song. Instead of a sample orchestra, Jeff continued using his E-Bow to play a similar part. It was an excellent version.

The only other new song played all night was "A Song for a Son". Clearly already recognized as a high point since the band's resurgence, the band hoped we'd recognize the song and started into a rocking job of it. Near the end, they dragged it into a quieter jam, but something sounded out of tune or just off. The bass seemed to resonate with something in the building, but it threw off the rest of the song, and when the band tried to bring the energy back up, it still didn't jell quite right. The core of the song sounded great, but the five or six minutes of whatever after that seemed a bit lifeless.

Although "Ava Adore" was done in a fairly solid heavy rendition, the ending of the song ended oddly. Although the two guitarists hit the brief harmonized solo perfectly, they ended the song with a guitar duel that got progressively weaker until it just fell flat. After Corgan started screwing up, they ended up just laughing and tossing around tired Led Zeppelin riffs. They meagerly tried to bring things to some kind of decent close, but they made up for it by tearing into a great version of "Muzzle".

I'm never quite sure what to make of the Smashing Pumpkins anymore. After a rocky start to their reunion, I'm happy that it seems like the band has settled on a stable configuration. It's still unclear if Corgan has abandoned the completion of his ambitious Teargarden project, but he's certainly given up on the original vision in favor of the traditional album format (which he'd previously claimed he had forsaken entirely). Something must have changed in Corgan's head, because Oceania is noticeably superior to everything previously released from the Teargarden project. The songwriting and performances are clearly a step up, although the production is still obnoxious. Seeing the album performed live brings up a big question: why doesn't Corgan realize that his live sound is better than his studio work?

Live performance: C+
Oceania: B

P.S. This show was bootlegged and is available for download here. This is entirely legal as the band permits taping of their concerts. 

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