The Pumpkins promised to bring their A-game to New York for a duo of extravagant 20th anniversary concerts. In the end, the shows served as a sort of microcosm of the Pumpkins' career itself, encapsul
"You'll enjoy [this]," Billy Corgan told the crowd between songs. "And if you don't, I'm going to have a classic meltdown right here. I've read about me on the Internet. I know what I'm like." Though the chrome-domed Smashing Pumpkins frontman intended the remark as a joke, his words would prove prophetic during the band's two-night run at Harlem's United Palace Theater. For better and for worse, Corgan is a performer who can't help living up to his own legend.
The Pumpkins promised to bring their A-game to New York for a duo of extravagant 20th anniversary concerts – the band's first Big Apple gigs in almost a decade. The concept was grand: the group (which includes original drummer Jimmy Chamberlain amongst a cast on new players) would perform completely unique sets on differently themed nights, designed to celebrate the music for which Corgan had earned his alt-rock crown.
But 41-year-old Billy Corgan has never made things easy, neither for himself nor for his fans. While each two-and-a-half hour show was indeed packed with nostalgic highs, they also brought some of the band's unfortunate lows to the stage. In the end, the concerts served as a sort of microcosm of the Pumpkins' career itself, encapsulating lots of good, an equal amount of bad, and some really unfortunate ugly.
Thursday night's "Black Sunshine" concert, focusing on the Pumpkins' heavier fare, began brilliantly. Classics like "Siva," "Mayonaise," and "Tonight Tonight" tore through the concert hall with the same intensity Corgan and co. wielded in their mid-'90s heyday. Recent tracks like "G.L.O.W." and "Tarantula" proved that the band still has many of its musical chops in place – even if they don't quite posses the finesse of the old days.
As always, Corgan's intention was to be larger than life. Wearing a white, skin-tight "Zero" shirt and a long, multi-tiered skirt, the towering frontman raised his gauntlet of rock as high as he could, unleashing a barrage of extended guitar solos, enthusiastic finger points, and textbook, back-arching poses throughout the set. But Corgan's enthusiasm got the better of him, as he eventually forgot to entertain anyone but himself. The hits grew fewer; the aimless solos grew longer. The set ended with a tuneless, indulgent cover of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls" – which featured Corgan on timpani for one stretch. The effort was met with a chorus of boos while Corgan laughed and sauntered offstage.
The Pumpkins returned for an encore, where Corgan proceeded to mock the crowd for several minutes. "The outpouring of love from the New York crowd always warms my cold heart. The way most of you strolled in late… the way you booed at the end of the show," Corgan ranted during a rendition of "Everything Is Beautiful" that featured band members on kazoos. "Lighten up," he said. "I think we've earned the right to have some f**king fun."
Friday night's "White Crosses" show began on a lighter, less confrontational note. Corgan, who traded in his white outfit for gothic black, led the band through a set of its more melodic fare and seemed intent on leaving the bitterness of the previous night behind. An early onslaught of hits -- "1979," "Soma," and "Cherub Rock" – had the sold-out crowd firmly on its feet and back on the band's side. Still, Corgan couldn't keep picking at his scabs. At one point, he brought a disgruntled fan onstage who had witnessed the prior night's debacle.
"Yo, last night's show sucked, man!" said the fan. Corgan pretended to take the criticism in stride, and even offered to refund the fan's money. But Billy, set on having the last word, took his shots as the fans walked back to his seat. "By the way, I like that song that you wrote. I believe it was number one. 'Take Your D*ck Out of My A** and Stick It in My Mouth'? That was a big hit in Europe.
"Yes, the circus is back on the road," Corgan continued as the crowd roared. "Just when you thought drama was so '90s." From there, the band digressed into a set that was, once again, light on hits (though acoustic renditions of "Landslide" and "Disarm" were lulling treats), and heavy on rambling jams that left the once-captivated audience scratching their heads, and perhaps wishing Corgan would offer to refund their money too.
The anniversary concerts were intended to be a bright feather in the Pumpkin's cap. But despite their shining moments, the gigs also served as a reminder of the band's musical inconsistency and the volatility of its frontman. When Corgan sticks to the playbook, he can still deliver with a musical ferocity that rivals artists half his age. But it's regrettable that his skill isn't yet coupled with the poise you'd expect from a 20-year veteran.
But history has shown that Corgan is full of surprises. Who knows -- maybe he'll get everything sorted out in time for the Pumpkins' silver anniversary.
Here is the Smashing Pumpkins set list for Nov. 6, 2008 (Black Sunshine):
"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"
Here is the Smashing Pumpkins set list for Nov. 7, 2008 (White Crosses): "Ava Adore"
"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″