San Jose Mercury News show review - April 1996
(Thanks to Alice for typing this review out)
Playful Pumpkins give fans smooth, faithful renditions from their extensive repertoire.
San Francisco At the first of two sold-out shows Tuesday night, the Smashing Pumpkins left no doubt they have rebounded from a disastrous series of performances two years ago, when they headlined the Lollapalooza Festival with a lackluster and critically condemned set.
This time, the Chicago band's 2 and a half hour show before 1,500 people at Kezar Pavilion, a basketball gym with a bouncy floor, was always competent and sporadically brilliant. Despite a momentum-killing and disjointed playlist, the group left this critic wanting more.
"Last time we were in San Francisco, it was Lollapalooza, and it was mighty lame, as I remember," said singer/songwriter Billy Corgan midway through the second set. "Thanks for making us welcome back."
The quartet, augmented by keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin, opened with a 45 minute, 10 song set that was polished and smooth during the playing and as fun and light as a rehearsal between songs.
The sound was excellent and of arena quality. And there wasn't a bad seat in the hall, a remarkably intimate setting.
The amount and variety of music was almost too much to take in. It was a show that seems even better 12 hours later than at the time.
The pumpkins hit some of the other moments from their 28 song opus, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," opening with "Tonight, Tonight" "In the Arms of Sleep," "Cupid de Locke,", and "Thirty-Three," before throwing in Today from the album that carried them into the mainstream, "Siamese Dream."
The songs were faithful to the recorded versions. Maybe a little too faithful. The only nuances came from James Iha, who borrowed a page from 70s guitar improviser Robert Fripp and made his guitar cough, cackle, whir and hiss under Corgan's rhythms, as if it had been struck by lightning.
Iha, whose playing was a revelation all night long, seemed hemmed in by the acoustic and soft electric tunes in the first set. During one break, he launched into Metallica's "Ride the Lightning," and at another he hit a riff from the Kinks' "You Really Got Me."
He found a chance to open up during the electric set, which alternated between rockers and ballads from "Mellon Collie" and finally cut loose with jams on "Geek U.S.A." and "Silverfuck," which featured Corgan beating the guitar strings against an amplifier to match Iha's intensity.
The big question was whether the Pumpkins could recreate the lush, multi-layered music without using tape. They did. The songs lost nothing in the translation, but too often - as on such overplayed radio singles as "1979" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" - the band didn't add anything, either.
At their best, however, they brought new life to songs that weren't standouts on the album. They jammed on "X.Y.U." which sounds compressed and stifled on the disc, and it became an electrifying set close. "Where Boys Fear to Tread", "Zero", and "Fuck You" stood out live.
Unfortunately, the band rushed through explosive versions of "Muzzle" and "Cherub Rock," which could have gone a lot longer to reach their fullblown effect.
The Pumpkins seemed to suffer from trying to fit too many great songs into one show and from the sorrowful, self-pitying weight of their music. Corgan - who spotted a shaved head and pajamas in the opening set and a "Zero" rock-star suit, complete with silver pants in the second - doesn't have the kind of charisma that makes an audience feel comfortable. His voice can grow tiresome, too, though it held up through most of this set.
Bassist D'Arcy Wretzky summed up the problem: "We were trying to play a happy song, but we realized we don't have any happy songs."
The Pumpkins attempted some humor in the final encore, "Farewell and Goodnight," with Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain, an excellent drummer, adding some dreadful, off-key vocals. Anyone from the audience could have done better. But the song showed they don't take themselves too seriously - at least not all the time.
For my money, the band spent too much time producing exact replicas or their records and not enough time improvising. But as this was only their sixth date on their small-hall tour, there is plenty of potential for them to do more jamming on a possible arena tour later this year.
Unlike a lot of modern bands, whose repertoires are too thin to last more than an hour, the Pumpkins, who have put out an amazing number of great songs since 1991, gave the audience more than it could handle. And still there were plenty of great songs they didn't play.
It was a show that demanded a second listen just to take it all in.
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