The Smashing Pumpkins are back – with spectacular intensity

Photo credit: Henna Neill

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 6, 1996

You’d think that after performing for almost 2 1/2 hours and giving the audience three sets of encores, the Smashing Pumpkins would have run off the stage after their sold-out concert Friday night at the Rosemont Horizon.

But when the house lights came on, there was a strange sight on stage. Singer Billy Corgan was still there, acknowledging the adulation of his cheering fans and obviously relishing the band’s triumphant homecoming. The group’s show – the first of three consecutive evenings at the Horizon, ending Sunday night – was spectacular, even factoring in the poor mix during the first half-hour that made Corgan’s voice sound like it was being filtered through a transistor radio.

The Pumpkins’ concert was designed to assault the senses. While Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy were only slightly more mobile than the stationary musicians in Oasis, they offered the crowd plenty of eye candy to soak in.

A gigantic metal structure towering over the musicians was equipped with lights that fanned the audience, as did the almost uncomfortably bright strobes that flashed in time to new drummer Matt Walker’s fierce playing.  As the band played cuts primarily from its current double album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” images (such as a snippet from “The Planet of the Apes”) flashed across the gigantic screens.

The most surreal sight, though, was of a tall, gangly man in a green sequined suit adorned with wicked angels’ wings who handpicked seven fans to come on stage and dance while the Pumpkins played a trippy rendition of “1979.”  Guitarist Jimmy Frog of the Frogs – whose bandmate Dennis Flemion is touring as the Pumpkins’ keyboardist – almost knocked a couple of the excited kids over with his oversize wings.

“There’s just two rules,” Corgan told the giddy teens. “Don’t touch us, and don’t touch our – – – -.”

The crowd, which included as many kids as young adults, was appreciative of the band’s barrage of distorted guitars and sonic blasts. The Pumpkins’ material took on a rougher edge live than on record.  While Corgan’s voice often has a sweet tinge in the studio, he strips it down to primal screams in concerts that are as emotional as his lyrics.  He ripped his way through a speeded-up version of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and added a touch of cynicism to their sweeping opus “Tonight, Tonight.”

And when the audience sang backup for him on “Disarm” (from 1993’s “Siamese Dream”), he generously accepted the gesture and fed off the crowd’s intensity.

There were a few stilted moments. The crowd gave them standing ovations throughout the night, and the musicians sheepishly accepted the praise.

“This is our first real rock tour, and we’re still unsure of what to say to such a massive audience,” Iha said, half-apologetically.

It has been a tumultuous few months for the Pumpkins. Their tour was put on hold when keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose, and their friend and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – who had shot up with him – was fired in the aftermath. The closest the band came to acknowledging that was when Corgan said, “This is kind of embarrassing, especially with everything that has happened.  This is the portion where we ask you to dance.”

And dance we did, basking in the Pumpkins’ rejuvenation.

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