In the lobby of United Palace, the grand theater in Harlem where Smashing Pumpkins spent two nights celebrating their 20th anniversary last week, a T-shirt for sale declared "Smashing Pumpkins: 20 Years of Sadness." Based on the two unique sets Billy Corgan scowled through, a more accurate phrase would have been "20 Years of Frustration With Glimpses of Transcendence."
Corgan is a problematic character, as he is a petulant control freak who gives into most of his artistic urges without questioning the context or repercussions. He's always been a man not quite in sync with the rest of the music world — when everybody was making gritty grunge, Corgan abandoned his noisier tendencies to make a Boston album (Siamese Dream); a few years later, he made a Depeche Mode record during a time when that was not even fashionable for Depeche Mode. The current iteration of the Pumpkins — the version that released last year's Zeitgeist — is a hulking big-rock monolith that nods to the group's harder-edged past but generally lacks the finesse and grace. This was the band that walked into New York — their first time in the city in nearly a decade — and delivered a pair of sets that had the crowd full of mostly die-hards from the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness days scratching their heads.
Thursday night's show, dubbed "Black Sunshine," mined Corgan's prog urges and stuck to the heavier tunes from Zeitgeist with only a few nods to some of their biggest singles. The early run of "Tarantula," excellent new single "G.L.O.W.," "Siva," "Eye," "Mayonaise" and "Tonight Tonight" felt like an actual 20th anniversary set, with modern monsters skulking amongst the radio hits. But things quickly fell off a cliff, bogged down by tuneless dirges like the reworked version of "Heavy Metal Machine" and a noisy, directionless cover of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." Even a rote version of "Today" couldn't save the evening from ending on a sour note, where during "Everything Is Beautiful" Corgan mocked the audience members exiting the house early.
Friday night, called "White Crosses," should have been better, as the set list was more even and balanced, with a focus on the prettier side of the Pumpkins. But in many ways, it was infinitely more problematic. Again, the night started relatively strong, with the band opening with underrated single "Ava Adore" (which featured Corgan wearing a vampire cloak and carrying a plastic jack-o-lantern full of silver glitter) and moving on to fan-favorites like "Soma," "Cherub Rock" and "Zero." It was as though Corgan was giving everybody what they wanted up front so they couldn't complain later. And there was much to complain about: New songs like "Song for a Son" and "As Rome Burns" got lost in the theater's strange acoustics, while even favorites like "Disarm" lacked teeth. Clearly losing the crowd, Corgan invited a fan onto the stage to voice his opinion about Thursday's show. The fan told him, "Last night's show sucked," and for a minute it looked like Corgan was going to take criticism in stride for once. But as the fan was walking back to his seat, Corgan shouted, "By the way, I liked that song you wrote. What was it called? 'Take Your Dick Out of My Ass and Stick It in My Mouth'? That was a big hit in Europe." For a guy who has made his money airing out his own tales of childhood torment and abuse, it seemed strange and hypocritical for him to resort to playground name-calling and juvenile homophobia.
Corgan then rewarded his devoted audience with the 20-plus minute prog jam "Gossamer" and an utterly ridiculous version of "The March Hare" that devolved into a percussion jam that channeled Stomp. By then, the audience that hadn't physically left had certainly checked out mentally. Corgan still cares deeply about his own credibility and likely sees these shows as a powerful statement of purpose for him, but he needs to find a better balance if he wants to draw crowds for his 25th anniversary.
Set List: Black Sunshine (Thursday)
"Everybody Come Clap Your Hands"
"Once Upon A Time"
"Again, Again, Again (The Crux)"
"The Rose March"
"Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
"The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning"
"Heavy Metal Machine"
"Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun"
"We Only Come Out At Night"
"Everything Is Beautiful"
Set List: White Crosses (Friday)
"Cupid de Locke"
"I of the Mourning"
"Song For A Son"
"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"
"As Rome Burns"
"The Sound Of Silence"
"Little Red Riding Hood"
"The March Hare"
"The March Hare (Reprise)"
"Age of Innocence"
"That's The Way (My Love Is)"
"I Am One, Part 2"
• Smashing Pumpkins Prep New Album, 20th Anniversary Tour
• Exclusive Q&A: Billy Corgan's Fury
• Classic Feature: Billy Corgan's Rolling Stone Interview
• Album Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Zeitgeist
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