When Billy Corgan announced that the Smashing Pumpkins would be getting back together after their break up in 2000, I responded with immediate chagrin. I knew from the get-go that James Iha would never return to the band and that D’arcy Wretzky had disappeared into the ‘90s rock ‘n’ roll abyss along with Krist Novoselic and the entirety of Soundgarden. And at any rate, Corgan’s last word on her was to call her a “mean-spirited drug addict.” So, you can see how that would strain attempts to legitimately get the band back together.
How can you really call the band “Smashing Pumpkins” when only Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain are going to be in it? Isn’t that just Zwan Mach II? We’ve all seen what happens when a band returns from the ashes to capitalize off a much beloved name and the result isn’t pretty. Guns N’ Roses, I’m looking at you.
When I did buy a ticket, I could feel in my bones that I was making a fool’s gamble. Even if the band played “Siamese Dream” beginning to end, would it still be the same? At least I would have Explosions in the Sky to look forward to. Initially, Explosions in the Sky, one of Austin’s most exciting bands, was the opening act for the southeastern leg of the Pumpkins’ tour. They’ve made post-rock more palatable to mainstream music lovers by performing the score to “Friday Night Lights” and appearing on an episode of “Austin City Limits” with The Decemberists. They were born for live performances and, reportedly, put on devastatingly emotional, complex shows that would have easily given Smashing Pumpkins a run for their money. Not to mention that Explosions’ 2003 record, “The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place,” was one of the first records I bought on vinyl.
I had only just been able to come to terms with my sense of dread when the band announced that it would be postponing its final week or so of dates due to a heart condition drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was developing. Six days later on Nov. 11, the band descended upon the Ryman Auditorium along with a band that was most definitely not Explosion in the Sky.
Opening for the Pumpkins instead was another Austin band, What Made Milwaukee Famous, a fairly generic indie rock four-piece. The band had tinges of post-“Maladroit” Weezer and “Showbiz”-era Muse in their sound, but being derivative of two bands not quite at their peak isn’t very impressive. The crowd shared my apathy, which became evident from occasional shouts of “Who are you?” and “Billy Corgan!” Conversations in the crowd carried on as loudly as they would during intermission and the overall feeling was one of indifference. But, they did almost win me about halfway into the set when they started playing a cover of “Cherub Rock.” What massive cojones this band must have to cover one of the headliner’s best-known songs (and, traditionally, their closing number) on their first date on the tour. Then they transitioned into their far less interesting songs and I lost interest again. They were a perfectly competent band, but only being competent makes for an unsatisfactory replacement for Explosions in the Sky.
I had no idea what to expect from a Smashing Pumpkins show; the last time that they played Nashville was 1998. During the set, Corgan told the story of their last appearance here, which was, bizarrely enough, at the Grand Ole Opry. At the show, they were told that they weren’t allowed to play electric, so they went forward with an entirely acoustic set. It seemed like the band was trying to make up for the noise that they couldn’t make last time with their Ryman set.
On the positive side, they played easily the most raucous show I’ve ever seen at the Ryman. When Corgan hit the first chord in “United States,” it felt like I’d been struck by lightning and it no longer mattered that it was only really half of Smashing Pumpkins. But, on the other hand, every song seemed to have a distorted bridge that existed only to create more improvised noise. These bridges were most noticeable on songs that were already very long: “Heavy Metal Machine” felt like it lasted for three hours.
It may be irrational of me, but I blame some of the extended solos for the deficits in a set list heavily packed with new, obscure and otherwise unheard songs that only diehards would really know or appreciate.
Corgan started out solo with three songs that have only seen life on the current tour and later played a song with the full band, “Superchrist,” which has never been recorded. Other songs like “Lucky 13” and “Drown” have only been heard on singles or greatest hits compilations, although “Drown” was a fairly popular pseudo-single at its time. Out of the 21-song set, a mere three songs each represented “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” and Siamese Dream.”
More esoteric songs like “We Only Come Out At Night” and “Stumbleline” were sacrificed for songs more suited to the inexplicable rock-out sessions. Some of the best parts of the show came when the band took it down a notch. A little over halfway into the show, the band disappeared so Corgan could play “1979” and “Perfect” acoustically and he was incredible. I could have done without some of those distortion breakdowns if it meant room for “Zero,” “Disarm” or literally anything off “Gish” – an album completely unrepresented in the set list.
Despite a set list that left something to be desired, Smashing Pumpkins still have it. Or at least Corgan and Chamberlin still have it, while the new band members are no less than adequate replacements for the missing members. The crowd, unfortunately, wasn’t nearly as amped up as I expected. By the time Corgan hit the chorus in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” I expected a full-scale riot would have broken out. Pews would be overturned, folding chairs would be flying and no less than 10 people in the crowd would have been hospitalized by the unfolding chaos – although when they woke from their respective comas, they’d agree that they’d do it all over again. By the end of the chorus, I expected the Ryman to be on fire. Unfortunately, latent “Nashville cool” seeped in and helped propel the show’s mediocrity. The audience is as much part of the concert as the band is. As Ian MacKaye said later that week at The Evens’ show, “If you weren’t here, we would be rehearsing; let’s make a show together.”
Smashing Pumpkins were good in the most frustrating way. They’re clearly still talented and they clearly still have a grasp on the old songs, but a combination of the set list and the borderline uncomfortable atmosphere in the Ryman knocked it down to average. But, it did make my inner sullen junior high student happy and that’s all I could have hoped for.