Allstate Arena – Rosemont, IL - October 19, 2012: Rebirths in rock n' roll are virtually non-existent. Ask any band from the eighties or nineties who has lost original members and the task of creating music that matters is a thorny and almost unattainable mission, as it requires the relinquishing of ego. Despite this implausibility, I am standing inside the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago and watching a rock rebirth, and the miracle goes by the name of the Smashing Pumpkins. Over the last year, I have learned that you can never underestimate Billy Corgan. People love to mock and vilify him, but he is one of the great rock stars from the last two decades. Sure, his comments in interviews may alienate some, but in reality, he is simply being truthful – a rarity in the entertainment industry. The easiest route for him would have been to reform the original Pumpkins and try to replicate the sound that sold millions. It most likely would have been remarkable and pleased many, but instead he chose the path less traveled a number of years ago. He rebuilt the Smashing Pumpkins, member-by-member and turned them into road warriors and then took them into the studio and together as a band created a modern rock masterwork of estrangement in Oceania.
Someone once told me "to understand a fan, you have to be one" and Corgan is without question a fan of music. Look no further than his interview clips in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage from 2010. While the film was peppered with sound bytes from dozens of artists who were impacted by the Canadian trio, it was Corgan's recollections about their music that permeated long after the film ended. There was a moment where he spoke of playing his mother one of their songs as a way of communicating with her. When it was announced the Smashing Pumpkins would play their latest studio album, Oceania in full on this tour, it appeared to be a selfish move, no matter how exhilarating the record is. However, Corgan understands this would be a tough pill for any audience to swallow so he hired Sean Evans to develop stunning visuals to compliment each song. Evans most recently worked on the sprawling images that compliment Roger Waters' latest tour in support of The Wall. During most of the seventy-minute performance of Oceania, I was mesmerized. I was not sure if I should be watching the firework musical performance on the stage or the stunning and thought inducing visuals displayed on a giant globe/balloon above the stage. What differentiates this incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins is their unified approach to the music. This is not a Billy Corgan solo project or even hired guns but four musicians experiencing a rare artistic renaissance. Oceania had the potential bore the crowd but instead it blossomed. The 2012 incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins is a thriving monolith of force.
It is one thing to coddle your audience and another to challenge them. For the better part of the last decade, I have seen dozens of shows where Bruce Springsteen delivered his latest records almost entirely in concert, but without the proper backdrop or context, it alienated more than it engaged. On the flipside, most summer package tours are about big bucks and as a result, you have to deliver the hits even in cases where the act had a new album in stores. People are reliving their youth without creating new memories. I have never understood why one would spend all that time creating a new record and then ignoring it on the road. Corgan gave his audience the best of both worlds with Oceania performed in full with a tour de force vision and on the back end, a set heavy on hits and classic album cuts. The huge planet that hovered above the stage was transfixing as it comprised of a specific set of images for each Oceania song making you appreciate their nuances more. This is how you fight for a record. You will never have a greater grip on one's attention than in a live performance setting. Television shows allow an abbreviated performance of a song, webcasts and home videos are not confined and people are easily distracted. However, in concert, you stand your greatest chance of winning them over and this is something Billy Corgan understands. One wishes the Rolling Stones and the Who would have been this daring or brave when they brought out their last records, A Bigger Band and Endless Wire. Those were records steeped in the classic DNA of each band and both went largely unnoticed, because the bands had to deliver the hits. I would go so far to say Oceania is the greatest post-grunge record released to date. I may waver on that opinion day-to-day with Alice in Chains 2009 masterwork Black Gives Way to Blue and possibly Pearl Jam's 2006 self titled record (known as Avocado) but the point I wish to drive home is that Oceania is every bit as vital to the Pumpkins discography as Siamese Dream. Further, it is without question one of the ten best records of 2012. This is not a hard-edged record, but like Dylan's Time Out of Mind captures a moody aesthetic that opens a new chapter in the history of the Smashing Pumpkins.
The 150-minute performance opened with "Quasar" with a tickling tease before the four members converged and let their instruments fire away as if they were heading into battle. "The Celestials" was notable for the skipping bass line performed with punctuation by Nicole Fiorentino who was graceful and elegant and her hips swayed in tandem with his finger fighting cues. Hearing a twinge of ache in Corgan's vocal and the fervent acoustic strumming as he sung "Never let the summer catch you down" was every bit enlivening as any classic cut from their catalog. "Violet Rays" found the crowd singing along while Corgan gives an homage to Rush on the resounding "My Love Is Winter". "One Diamond, One Heart" has an accessible energy that propels the song. The chorus is a simple one but the lyric of "I'm always on your side" was sung with yearning emotion you sensed this was not Corgan simply flexing his ego, but reaching for that connection with the crowd. "Pinwheels" has an eclectic New Order vibe to it (who were ironically in Chicago two nights later) and yet it is a sobering love song of rare beauty. Corgan captured the alluring melodies of Zwan with the dirty doom of their 90's ghosts and infused these talents into Oceania. When recording Oceania the Pumpkins worked on these songs diligently knowing they had one chance to grip the listener and the time and energy they put into their craft reaped huge rewards in their best record in fifteen years. On "Glissandra", Corgan emerged with one hand above his hand at the end of a soaring guitar solo reminiscent of David Gilmour at his best as Corgan's guitar let loose a melodic shiver adding to the cyclone of sound. The Oceania arrangements challenge the listener without leaving them in the cold, which is what a large majority of Zeitgeist did. The 2012 tour is more than a show, but a restorative experience that captures the essence of our existence. Oceania is a record that deserves to be heard by everyone and the tour in support of it is a rarity in the world of music; it engages and enthralls.
The first 70-minutes were all about Oceania and like a film director, he wanted to construct a set where the songs compliment one another instead of being a collection of random performances. "Space Oddity" opened the second portion of the set in a trippy homage to one of rock's greatest envelope pushers- David Bowie. The appearance of the bright lights was intentional, as this was the first time Corgan wanted to show off the band. The urgent fury of their early career is still there, notably on the album cut "X.Y.U.". "Disarm" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" were not just convincing but full of more conviction than you could imagine. "Zero" featured frenzied musicianship while "Cherub Rock" and "Ava Adore" found the anguished music punctuated by out-of-body performances by the band. One newer song performed in the second set was an internet only release from 2009, "A Song for a Son" which features some of Corgan's best and most poignant lyric writing. Corgan is coming into his own as a songwriter and with the Pumpkins reaffirmed; he once again has the vehicle to deliver it. He may not have the same audience at the band's peak but his work and performances over this last year are a revelation, he is an artist worthy of your time and energy. The replacement of original band members is a daunting task, just ask Axl Rose, but like Rose, Corgan isn't just building an arsenal to replicate the old hits, but to bring something new to the table and to take the bands into the next realm. There was a unified front. The four musicians on the arena stage not only challenged one another but feed off their dynamic performances.
"Oceania" and "Tonight, Tonight" proved to be the evening's exceptional moments. The title cut found the band in four separate cars musically driving to the same destination but alternating down different routes. What Corgan attempts here is like Russian roulette because if you give musicians too much space, they are likely to veer off course or even worse, lament in an ego-filled musical solo. Nevertheless, they magically all make it to the destination at the same time. While not entirely under Corgan's thumb, the band flexes their own magic but it is never for them but in service of the song. They have an intrinsic trust in one another and you get the feeling that none of them will be left behind. The Pumpkins were every bit as unremitting on "Tonight, Tonight" as Jeff Schroeder's guitar concurrently generated sweetness and sorrow, while Mike Byrne performed his drums with pensive precision. Bassist Nicole Fiorentino took the new and classic songs through a tunnel of longing and wistfulness awakening you from a self-induced coma. They capture the aggression and the ambitiousness of the original band and steering them is their fearless leader, Billy Corgan who through anguished screams, faint whispers and lyrics laced with bitter truths is a catalyst for our own fears and desires. At the song's climax, Corgan longingly delivered the lyric of "Believe in me as I believe in you". He was not just lost in the art of performance, but this one line was a helping hand reaching out to his band mates and his audience. The Smashing Pumpkins are not the same band they once were, but there is forward momentum and yet they are still capable of capturing the awe of their first decade. The Smashing Pumpkins circa 2012 are a musically absorbing entity on record and on stage taking us deep into our subconscious as we reflect upon our dreams, nightmares and desires as we do our best to believe in one another.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter