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Review: Smashing Pumpkins at Gibson Amphitheatre

December 3, 2008 |  1:39 pm

Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins was being funny. "It's a good time for you to sit, because you're all old, I can see," he teased fans as he picked up an acoustic guitar on Tuesday, in the first of the band's two nights at the Gibson Amphitheatre. "The '90s are a distant memory."

Maybe not so distant for Corgan, who has been leading the newest version of the Pumpkins in an ambitious 20th anniversary tour, challenging audiences to see the band beyond its 1990s hits. That's been a problem for Corgan since re-forming the group in 2006 (minus original members James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky), expressing dismay in interviews that too many fans are interested only in nostalgia. Corgan wants to look forward.

During more than two hours onstage, the new Pumpkins did deliver a healthy selection of familiar radio songs while surrounding them with more obscure material that might appeal mainly to the most adventurous and hard-core of fans. An elegant trumpet solo from Stephen Bradley soared during the understated "Once Upon a Time," a song from the band's 1998 "Adore" album, which Corgan joked is right when listeners "gave up on us."

Feel his pain.

But what mattered most on Tuesday was that Corgan was in full command of that sound, with as clear a musical vision as ever, a grungy-glammy modern rock artiste as noisy as Sonic Youth, drawing on classic rock guitar heroism. During "Eye," Corgan's dreamy, cascading guitar melody glided across some brooding rhythms from drummer (and founding member) Jimmy Chamberlin.

The stage decor was opium den cabaret, blending darkness and glamour. Corgan stood center stage dressed all in white, including a long skirt, and had "Zero" written across his chest. New bassist Ginger Reyes wore a ballerina dress.

A rumbling "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning" was grim and vaguely romantic even as Corgan sang of a "world devoured in its pain," slowly creeping along the stage like Count Orlok in "Nosferatu."

The hooks were less vivid in the non-hits, as Corgan reached beyond the comfort zone of fans and himself. During "United States," Corgan unspooled a big glam-rock solo before slipping into a few moments of "The Star-Spangled Banner," plucking the guitar strings with his teeth, Jimi Hendrix style.

It's not a wide musical palette, but Corgan goes deep with it. And his complaints about the mixed reviews from fans and critics are maybe understandable from an artist still determined to grow, but unrealistic for fans with an emotional connection to the original band. A decade before, David Byrne made a similar decision in his own career, disappointing many, but he didn't continue to record and tour as the Talking Heads.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the smiles on our faces are real," Corgan insisted late in the concert. "We actually enjoy what we do now."

Being bold sometimes meant falling short. He pounded a pair of big kettle drums during a cover of Pink Floyd's 1968 psychedelic freakout "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," which was more meandering than epic.

It was a storm of echoes, horns, violin, big beats and Corgan breaking his electric guitar strings, all going wild and nowhere in particular. And after 10 minutes, he wandered off the stage. The end.

The Pumpkins returned for an encore, turning a stripped down "We Only Come Out at Night" into a piano singalong, as Corgan and the band joined on kazoos. That drifted into a seemingly impromptu kazoo instrumental of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "(They Long to Be) Close to You," a warm and charming end to a full night.

--Steve Appleford

Photo: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times