“The world is a vampire/Sent to drain.” — “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by the Smashing Pumpkins
I got the definite sense this week that I was the victim of a vampire.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine managed to get two tickets to see the Smashing Pumpkins at the Slowdown in Omaha. It is an incredible venue, but it is what you would call intimate. It has a capacity of 470 people, and so all the tickets were claimed within 30 seconds. It was quite a coup to score tickets.
We were excited to be one of the few who would see a band that had such an impact on us during our formative years play in a small venue with great acoustics.
The last time I saw the Smashing Pumpkins was Jan. 14, 1997, at the Sioux Falls Arena. I was a senior in high school, and it was my first major rock concert. At the time, the Smashing Pumpkins were at the peak of their success and one of my favorite bands. I played their double album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” incessantly and eagerly studied the lyrics in the accompanying booklets. And — I like to brag — I am fairly certain that I was the first person in Crofton, Neb., to own a copy of their 1993 album, “Siamese Dream.”
In short, I loved the band. Not only did they rock, but they had a theatrical sense (especially with “Mellon Collie”) and deeply emotional lyrics that resonated with me as a teenager.
When the quieter and more electronic album, “Adore,” came out in 1998, I thought it had some high points, but by the time “Machina/The Machines of God” was released in 2000, I began losing interest in the Smashing Pumpkins’ new output.
Since that time, I always become excited when I read that lead singer/songwriter Billy Corgan is working on something new. But I’ve been constantly disappointed by the results.
However, with the opportunity to see Corgan as the Smashing Pumpkins (though without any of the original members), my nostalgia receptors were open to full capacity.
I wanted Corgan and his band to move me like a teenager again.
The Slowdown was filled with people who probably had similar expectations. It was mostly an “older” crowd of 30- and 40-somethings.
When Corgan came out, he received a rapturous welcome to Omaha. While he looks a bit older and more filled out than he did in the late 1990s — that is only to be expected with the passage of 15 years — Corgan still fits the rock star bill. He sports the same shaved head and wore tight, black clothing. There is also an ease with which he works over the crowd, offering a wink here and a thrown guitar pick there. He is gracious toward his fans.
The band wasn’t shy about playing new music. “Quasar” and “Panopticon” opened the set before they delved into the past with “Pisces Iscariot” track “Starla” and moving on to “Siamese Dream” rocker “Geek U.S.A.”
The most raucous crowd moments were first set closer “Cherub Rock” and the final song of the evening, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”
My personal favorite moment of the night was when the band played “Soma,” a quieter moment from “Siamese Dream.”
The only problem was that, during the course of the set I didn’t feel the music plugging into my nostalgia receptors as expected. In fact, I found myself at several points feeling anxious for the show to end.
As we discussed the show on the way home that night, my friend and I both agreed that we had been disappointed.
Some of it had to do with the performance. The volume was turned up so loud that is was a murky mess. The bass distorted everything. We were surprised at just how poor the sound had been, especially since I’ve heard similarly loud bands (Mogwai, for example) play the Slowdown and sound impeccable.
There were many guitar solos during which Corgan seemed to be enjoying himself, and some of them were fantastic (amidst the aforementioned poor sound mix). But at times the noodling appeared half-hearted and became tedious.
Also, the band has an impressive wall of lights that would probably be great in a bigger venue. But in a more intimate space, they were overpowering. Many fans (myself included) had to avert or cover their eyes to avoid temporary blindness.
Finally, I had to come to terms with the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins don’t speak to me like they used to in my younger years. It’s not the first time this has happened, but this was a particularly painful realization because they are probably the most important band of my youth for which this has occurred. I still love many of their songs, especially “Today,” but their body of work does not impact me like it did in the past.
I feel like Stan from the “South Park” episode “You’re Getting Old.” In it, Stan turns 10 and suddenly everything that used to be cool to him literally starts looking and sounding like crap. Fortunately, I think this is an isolated incident that won’t spread to other interests.
Somehow the world sucked out the part of me that made the Smashing Pumpkins one of the best bands in the world. They are still very special to me, but sadly not what they used to be …
Critics in Omaha also gave the band mixed reviews.
Here is an excerpt from a review by Kevin Coffey at the Omaha World-Herald:
The band played almost 20 songs in two hours. Songs bled into each other and some tunes seemed to have no end, mostly because Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder spent lots of time noodling around on their instruments and playing solo after solo.
It made some songs go on too long, but Corgan’s playing can’t be faulted. He still has the chops.
And he still can sing.
In rock ‘n’ roll, some singers have distinctive voices that can’t be replicated. Chris Cornell, Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury all spring to mind.
Corgan’s right there with them, and his high-pitched, rangy voice hasn’t lost a bit of its magic.
One major issue for me was that The Smashing Pumpkins were packing far too much firepower. All but a few quieter melodies were unbearably loud and difficult to understand.
It was just too darn loud. The band’s giant speaker stacks would have been more at home at a theater or an arena.
Though it was often difficult to understand them, it was cool to see the band up close.
Coffey also did a nice interview with Corgan prior to the show.
And here is an excerpt from Tim McMahan at Lazy-i:
Though most of the rock riff-based material was unfocused and lacked a central melody, you have to admit it was well played. Corgan’s new band is remarkably proficient — good players all. His classic Chester Cat-in-heat voice was as good as it was back in the day. And the sound was huge; painfully huge. As always, I had my earplugs. I pity those who didn’t, as the gear stacked on either side of the stage looked powerful enough to fill a good-sized theater instead of humble ol’ Slowdown. You felt the bass.
And then there were the lights. I was situated in my usual perch behind the rail along stage left, a space that affords a good view of the band (but for whatever reason, is never crowded). With all the gear stacked along the side, I couldn’t get a glimpse of the drummer. Instead, I was in the direct line of a pair of blazingly bright stage lights, like looking into the heart of a thousand suns. Imagine someone popping a flash bulb directly into your eyes, all night long. Toward the end of the set, I had moved to the back of the room and discovered that a different set of painful strobe lighting was shooting directly into the crowd from the back of the stage. A lot of people in the crowd were shielding their eyes. Fun!
Because I couldn’t watch the stage a lot of the time, I watched the audience — a mob of 30+ white people who looked mesmerized by the performance, though they never seemed terribly engaged. A few held up their hands during high points. Most just stood and squinted. After the first 30 minutes of nondescript riffage, things began to get boring, and I began to realize I wasn’t likely to hear “Tonight, Tonight,” “1979,” “Today” or Corgan growl the endearing opening line “The world is a vampire.” But toward the end, I recognized a couple songs from Siamese Dream, and my vampire wish came true during the two-song encore. The true, die-hard fans got their money’s worth.
Here is the full setlist from Tuesday’s show:
• Geek USA
• Windown Paine
• Lighting Strikes
• Frail and Bedazzled
• Pale Horse
• Thru The Eyes Of Ruby
• Cherub Rock
• Bullet With Butterfly Wings
And, if you’d like to listen to the Smashing Pumpkins at the Sioux Falls Arena in 1997, click here. I saw them there with a bunch of high school friends, so it is a very awesome memory.
Finally, one more video from Tuesday night: