Live Report: Smashing Pumpkins

Universal Amphitheater, Universal City, Calif., July 1, 1998

When it comes to change, there are those who subscribe to the "If ain't broke, don't fix it!" mentality, and there are others who believe that change spells progress and shows an ability to adapt to an inconstant status quo. The Smashing Pumpkins would appear to be fierce advocates of the latter. Not only is change a good thing, but immediately changing what you've just changed is even better. Having said that, the Pumpkins deconstructed and rearranged the fifteen songs on Adore from murky, intoxicating poems into explosive, brazenly crafted performance pieces before an enthralled congregation of 6,000-plus at the Universal Amphitheater in Universal City, Calif.

A lethargic and brooding "To Sheila" inaugurated the charitable evening (the band's full share of ticket sales was donated to Five Acres, a Los Angeles-area children's aid society), and set the tone for a performance that would be more about evolution than reminiscence. "Behold! The Nightmare," "Pug" and "Crestfallen" followed -- all taking on a bolder, more aggressive texture than on Adore. A raging "Ava Adore" was re-orchestrated into something that sounded very similar to Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song," save the cabaret-style piano couplet in the middle courtesy of keyboardist-for-hire Mike Garson.

Besides Garson, the stretching of Adore's songs into full-blown epics was also facilitated by the three drummers who replaced the ousted Jimmy Chamberlain. Former John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Arnoff provides the primary firepower on skins, with additional percussionists Dan Morris and Stephen Hodges adding to the rhythmic assault with maracas, congas and gongs -- instruments that were previously unheard of in the Pumpkins regime.

Corgan, at first seeming all business on this night, showed his playful side before "Tear." After throwing his guitar pick at D'Arcy, he was shot-down by his provocatively dressed bassist (yes, she was wearing the see-through T-shirt that she so proudly displays in Adore's liner notes) via a wincing "Stop throwing picks!" "Girl Power! What can I say?" was the only response Corgan could muster. It seems that on-stage frolicking doesn't fit so well into the band's new-fashioned conceit. Ten songs into the set, the Pumpkins finally reached into their archives, albeit not very deeply. A jangly, down-home version of "Tonight, Tonight" settled the crowd into a fireside mood before an even gentler "Perfect" subdued matters even further.

The exercise in tranquillity, however, was abruptly halted by a nearly unrecognizable "Bullet with Butterfly Wings." Proving to be the most dramatic moment of the show, Corgan transformed himself into a menacing, God-like figure and assaulted the audience with an abrasive and primal version of the reprobate Mellon Collie hymn. The shock of his incessant shrieking was still wearing off as the band adjourned the main set with a tantric "For Martha." The first encore closed out the non-Adore hat trick with a fuzzy, upbeat version of "1979" in which Corgan announced mid-verse, "I almost forgot the words!" (Tonight being only the second show of the North American tour, some fine-tuning in the lyric department would do Corgan some good; earlier, he needed the liner notes from Adore to get through a solemn "Annie Dog"). With D'Arcy sprawled out on top of a speaker, Corgan completed the performance of Adore's tracklist with a lengthy "Blank Page."

After stating that the show usually ends there, Corgan taunted the crowd with the fact that the Chicago Bulls won the NBA Championship -- not the Lakers -- before announcing "Are you sure you can handle the metal? It's going to get a little heavy." An eerie, near twenty-minute rendition of Joy Division's "Transmission" followed, with tidbits from David Bowie's "Let's Dance" thrown in the mix as well. The pain of Ian Curtis' lyrics were easily adapted by Corgan, who specializes in that sort of songwriting. It just so happens that the despairing songs become desperately engaging when performed live. But what used to be accomplished with grungy guitars and brutal drumming is now executed with maracas, congas and a host of new musical surprises -- a transformation at one point in time which seemed less likely than finding a wet bar in Hell. Would you like one or two olives with your Martini, Mr. Corgan?