Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Smashing Pumpkins / Liz Phair - Live 2016.04.19 Bass Concert Hall, Austin, Texas

Last time that The Smashing Pumpkins came through Austin, they were touring with Marilyn Manson, tickets were surprisingly expensive, and after being less than impressed the last time I saw them live (in 2012 in St. Louis), I just couldn't bring myself to go. It looks like I missed what may have been a compelling acoustic rearrangement of "Thru the Eyes of Ruby", but probably not much else new or unusual. (The setlist is here.) That show was in July of last year, and I was surprised that they were touring again so soon, but this time the prices were slightly more reasonable and the touring mate was Liz Phair, who interested me somewhat more than Manson did. I decided to take a chance. After all, the prospect of a mostly-acoustic show seemed novel enough (I usually have enjoyed Corgan's past flirtations with acoustic arrangements), and I was encouraged by the return of original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to the band.

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: Bass Concert Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 April 2016
Opening Act: Liz Phair

Liz Phair's setlist (with some help from here):
01. Johnny Feelgood
02. Fuck and Run
03. Polyester Bride
04. Stratford-on-Guy
05. Never Said
06. Quiet [debut live performance]
07. Our Dog Days Behind Us
08. Extraordinary
09. Mesmerizing
10. Supernova
11. Why Can't I?
12. Divorce Song

The Smashing Pumpkins' setlist:
01. Cardinal Rule
02. Stumbleine
03. Tonight, Tonight
04. The World's Fair [originally performed by Billy Corgan]
05. Space Oddity [David Bowie cover]
06. Thirty-Three [backing vocals by Liz Phair]
07. Jesus, I [traditional rearrangement] → Mary Star of the Sea [originally performed by Zwan]
08. Mayonaise
09. Soma
10. Rocket
11. Spaceboy
12. Today
13. Whir
14. Disarm
15. Sorrows (in Blue) [originally performed by Billy Corgan]
16. Eye
17. Saturnine
18. Identify [originally performed by Natalie Imbruglia; co-written by Billy Corgan]
19. 1979
20. Stand Inside Your Love
21. Pinwheels
22. Lily (My One and Only) → Blister in the Sun [Violent Femmes cover tease]
23. Malibu [originally performed by Hole; co-written by Billy Corgan; lead vocals by Katie Cole]
24. The Spaniards
25. La Grange [ZZ Top cover; lead vocals by Sierra Swan]

26. Angie [Rolling Stones cover]

For some reason, although I knew that Corgan and company were supposed to be performing an acoustic set, I didn't think that Liz Phair would do the same. I was wrong: she appeared solo with just an acoustic guitar, although she also played an electric for about half of her set. The stripped-down arrangements did her songs justice: the lyrics were much easier to parse than otherwise, sharply revealing just how blunt and direct her songs are. I appreciated the perspective of her songs, but realized that I didn't actually like them all that much. Nonetheless, her guitarwork was solid and her voice was quite strong. Absent of the characteristic 90s alt-rock production of her studio work, her songs came across much more pop-oriented, and I even heard a conspicuous country inflection in parts. She played twelve songs in rapid succession, but I was surprised that she left after only 40 minutes. When Manson co-headlined last year, he was allotted time for an almost complete set, and I was expecting something similar from Phair. My impression was that she was similarly co-headlining, but this seemed more like a traditional opening set.

Billy Corgan initially appeared as the sole representative of The Smashing Pumpkins. (I've joked for years that the reformed version of the band would be better titled The Billy Corgan Experience.) Corgan began with a new, unreleased song ("Cardinal Rule"), two Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness classics, and then the lengthy "The World's Fair", originally part of his abandoned Chicago Songs project circa 2004. The MCIS songs are clearly favorites of Billy's and came across well, and "The World's Fair" was a treat to finally hear; before this tour it had only been played twice.

Guitarist Jeff Schroeder joined in with an acoustic guitar for "Space Oddity". The Pumpkins played the song throughout 2012 and 2013 in a rock arrangement, but seem to have brought it back in the wake of Bowie's death. It's unquestionably a great song, but there's only so much any cover version can bring to it. I'm not really sure why Corgan is so drawn to it. At any rate, they arranged it well and concluded it with a little dual-lead bit that almost fell apart but came together just right. The two proceeded with another MCIS classic, "Thirty-Three", joined by Liz Phair on backing vocals. Corgan and Schroeder gradually worked their way into the sprawling "Jesus I → Mary Star of the Sea" medley, which comes as a bit of a surprise, as it was originally performed by Zwan. (Oddly, Chamberlin, who had also drummed with Zwan, remained absent.) Zwan frequently performed acoustic sets, so the idea of this medley in an acoustic setting is not new, but the arrangement for just two guitars was, and again, they pulled it off exceptionally well. Corgan let Schroeder take most of the leads, and he rose to the challenge. Even though I find the overtly evangelical nature of the lyrics tiresome, the two managed to play a fairly convincing rendition.

At that point, Corgan finally took a moment to address the audience. He explained that he wanted to showcase a particular part of the band's history, and as soon as he dropped the words "Siamese Dream", the audience erupted in a frenzy. (Billy also claimed it was "just for us" despite that they've been playing practically identical setlists for the entire tour.) The two guitarists first offered "Mayonaise", which is a great song but came with the realization that James Iha would not be appearing on stage as he had at recent dates in Las Vegas and Chicago. Nonetheless, I was delighted by the new take on "Soma", in which Billy played keyboards, Jeff handled lead electric guitar, and the rest of the band finally came on stage: Katie Cole on bass and backing vocals, Sierra Swan on keyboards and backing vocals, and of course, Jimmy on drums. The keyboard-heavy take still brimmed with enough energy to make it work, even if the mix in the room made the bass drum too boomy.

"Rocket" was also done with Billy at the keyboard, which made for a solid new interpretation (versions with acoustic guitar were done by the band since before Siamese Dream even came out) and still managed to rock. "Spaceboy" and "Today" were both done in fairly standard but solid arrangements, but they brought out a surprise with "Whir", nominally a pastoral outtake from Siamese Dream (released on Pisces Iscariot a year later), but transformed here into a more rocking version than appeared on record. The highlight was Jeff's perfectly appropriate lead electric parts. The last of the Siamese tracks was "Disarm", which Billy played solo on a keyboard. The starkness of the performance came as a sudden departure in tone and didn't quite work. While certainly not a bad song, it stuck out and felt tedious.

The band made another sudden departure when Jeff began layering guitar effects and gradually building up to "Sorrows (in Blue)", originally from Corgan's 2005 solo album, The Future Embrace. Corgan, in the first instance I've ever seen, didn't even play an instrument! Partway into the first verse, a electronic backing tracks began filling in the drum and synth programming. It sounded cool, but it was an odd choice to use pre-recorded tracks when the full band was available. This same trend continued for "Eye", which was especially odd, considering that the band have done excellent rock arrangements (including the first time I saw them in 2008). Nonetheless, Jeff kept up the lead guitar work and they made it work. For "Saturnine" (an Adore outtake that eventually appeared on Judas O), Chamberlin came back out, but Corgan remained instrumentless and they still relied on electronic backing. "Identify" followed suit, but I was surprised enough as it was that they were even performing the song! Originally written primarily by Billy Corgan, it appeared on the Stigmata soundtrack, but performed by Natalie Imbruglia. In 2014, a demo version featuring Corgan's vocals was leaked (perhaps through some party involved in trying to get the Machina reissue released), which made me wonder if this performance was connected to that recent spark in interest. The last song with a discernible backing track was "1979", which was played in the standard acoustic version with doubled drums parts.

The band took it down a notch for a serene version of "Stand Inside Your Love", which started out with Cole on lead vocals before Corgan joined in. Swan also contributed backing vocals. This lighter theme with both women singing backing parts continued for "Pinwheels" and "Lily". This led to an abrupt change when Corgan introduced "Malibu" (originally by Hole but co-written with Corgan) with Cole on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Swan on bass and Corgan on electric guitar. The latter two both sang backing parts as well. There was a redemptive feeling in Corgan finally wielding his classic electric guitar sound, but it was strange to see it applied to that particular song. It was followed by "The Spaniards", a new, unreleased song with Billy back on lead vocals. Jeff and him shared lead parts, which was a pleasure to behold, albeit again somewhat out of place in the set.

Most dates of the tour ended the main set there. We were granted one extra song, apparently due to our proximity to the subject matter of the song: a cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange", written about a brothel in the Texas town of the same name. Swan took lead vocals initially but then just wandered about the stage with her phone in hand while the guitarists wailed. Sure, the interplay was great, but the song is horrible. Matters weren't improved by the encore, which was just a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Angie". While not a bad song, the Pumpkins just didn't have much to add to it. What's with Corgan and seemingly not knowing how to end concerts? Finishing with a few middling covers just doesn't leave a strong impression. This wasn't as bad as when I saw them in 2008 and they concluded with three long, heavy, meandering covers, but it was also just a bit of a letdown.

[The only halfway decent shot I got all night.]

Other than the covers, I got the impression that Billy was in a mood to reclaim some of his history. He historically has generally shied away from mixing up the various projects of his life (i.e. Zwan never played Pumpkins songs, the reformed Pumpkins never played Zwan songs, and the same separation was also mostly true with Corgan's solo work), but this tour is a deliberate deviation from that pattern. He played plenty of hits and select album cuts, but he also chose a few fairly obscure songs, and the performance of several songs Corgan wrote outside of the Pumpkins is quite a novelty. For a fan well-versed in the Corgan discography, it was a delight. Still, one can only wonder at some of the choices. There was nothing from Gish or Adore, nor anything from the early reunification years (Zeitgeist, If All Goes Wrong, and the early Teargarden by Kaleidyscope era) or even the latest album, Monuments to an Elegy. There were two new songs, both decent, but those and "Pinwheels" from Oceania were the only post-reunification selections.

The acoustic arrangements were mostly quite successful, adding further proof that Corgan is a gifted arranger when he sets out for it. It also helped that I generally find Corgan's live sound to be superior to the weird, artificial sheen that graces the production of all of Corgan's studio work since the days of Zwan. The full electric portion at the end was a bit out of place, but only somewhat disappointing because it didn't feature any classic Pumpkins jams. The biggest surprise for me was the electronic portion in the middle: but again, I felt like Billy was trying to reclaim his mark on music history. Indeed, he was a bit ahead of the curve in embracing electronic music in alternative rock, and it's easy to forget how jarring that was at the time.

It was also nice to see Corgan play with a band that he felt comfortable and confident with. Schroeder, despite being silent and inscrutable, performed wonderfully and apparently serves as a reliable foil for Corgan. He seems to have grown into his role well. Chamberlin is always a welcome addition, and Corgan's work is consistently the better for it. His drumming was more restrained than normal, as appropriate for the material, but when he let loose, he was incredible. Cole and Swan both performed well, but there is something odd about Corgan's revolving door of women bassists. Maybe I'm being unfair.

The only other thing on my mind during the show was Corgan's appearance on Alex Jones' Infowars show before the concert. I already knew that Corgan was somewhat out of touch and bizarrely critical of millennials (is that related to why Mike Byrne left the band?), but his politics have veered towards the terrible as time has gone on. This time, things got even worse: he compared social justice warriors to the KKK. If that had happened before I bought the ticket, I probably wouldn't have gone. Pull your head out of your ass, dude.

Liz Phair: C+
The Smashing Pumpkins: B+

[Edit 2019.08.11: P.S. Somehow I forgot to mention that this show was bootlegged. It's available for download here.]

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