"Pumpkins' pummel approach leaves fans bored out of gourd"
San Diego Union Tribune 12/13/1996
(Sent to us By Daniel Martinez)
There is no question that Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins have had a bad year, but did they have to take it out on us?
Five months after losing touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin to a heroin overdose and firing drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for his own substance-abuse problems, the Chicago-based band treated the San Diego Sports Arena crowd to a show with all the subtle dynamics of a primal-scream session.
For more than two hours, singer/guitarist Corgan howled while the band pummeled each song to a pulp. By the end, the Pumpkins probably felt a whole lot better. But while their cleansing ritual might have done wonders for their collective psyche, it didn't do much for their show.
It's not as if anyone expected an evening of campfire tunes. The Pumpkins are into sonic excess, and their fans love them for it. But their heavy music is usually balanced by Corgan's buoyant pop sensibility and confessional vulnerability. The band may bellow like a beast, but its heart has always been underdog soft.
Or it used to be. During Wednesday's migraine-inducing show, Corgan and the band sacrificed the melodic soul of their epic tunes in favor of a slash-and-burn approach that reduced almost every song to a monochromatic drone. Sometimes the white-heat blast was enough to launch a song into guitar-god heaven. More often, the speed-metal assault drained Corgan's tunes of all grace and beauty and robbed the audience of the satisfaction of hearing adored songs treated with the respect they deserve.
Ironically enough, the disappointments came after an opening number that turned the Sports Arena into a cathedral. After a fine, feisty set from Garbage (who have the charismatic stuff headliners are made of), the Pumpkins dived into a passionate version of "Tonight, Tonight," the "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" single that captures the band's million-selling appeal in four stunning minutes.
More symphony than ditty, "Tonight, Tonight" combines soaring strings, delicate guitars and Corgan's surging vocals into a tribute to the transforming powers of rock 'n' roll. We'll crucify the insincere tonight, Corgan sang, as rapt concertgoers flicked their Bics in a show of faith and worship.
Between the crowd's bobbing points of light and the band's onstage blast of incandescence, it was a jaw-dropping introduction to what was sure to be an amazing show. But instead of living up to that breathtaking first moment, Smashing Pumpkins blew it to bits, vaporizing the promise of a fulfilling show right along with it.
To count how many ways the show went wrong, you just had to follow the set list, as one potential bright spot after another got snuffed out by the Pumpkins' wind-tunnel blast. Corgan and the band -- guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy, guest-drummer Matt Walker and fill-in keyboardist Dennis Flemion -- played with precision and fury, but there was little warmth behind the technique. It sounded brutal, and after two-plus hours of pounding, it felt brutal, too.
After the euphoria of "Tonight, Tonight," the band hurtled through an assortment of "Mellon Collie" tunes that ended up sounding like one guitar-heavy blob. "By Starlight" crashed into "Zero," and "An Ode to No One" rammed into "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans," robbing that ambitious tune of all sense of drama as the band downshifted into aimless jamming.
Even songs that could have cut through the gloom fell victim to Corgan's angry-man makeover. "Disarm" and "Today" have been the highlights of past concerts, but at Wednesday's show, these classics from 1993's "Siamese Dream" were transformed from carefully calibrated mood-swing ballads into snarling diatribes.
Corgan's mother died Tuesday after a long illness, and whether he was fueled by new sorrow or old troubles, hearing him rip these precious tunes into self-indulgent shreds was painful. And trying to figure out why such an accomplished bunch of musicians would offer such narrow interpretations of its own work was bewildering.
By the end of the evening, a few survivors emerged. "Muzzle" held tight to its soul-searching charms, the band's cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" was still disarmingly sweet, and despite the rushed tempo and Corgan's throwaway vocals, the acrid "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" was a potent scorcher.
But mostly, it was a disappointing performance from a band whose shows at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Lollapalooza and SOMA have given San Diego some of its best rock 'n' roll memories. By choosing to color everything with the same heavy black crayon, Corgan and the band obliterated the shifting dynamics and soul-searching poignancy that have made Smashing Pumpkins one of the most outstanding groups of the decade.
The concert was loud, but the emotional silence was truly deafening.
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