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Despite author Thomas Wolfe's definitive warning, lots of people regularly try to go home again, only to find that the old place is no longer what it used to be. But not all such journeys end in disaster. Take the Smashing Pumpkins concert on April 19 at the Ogden Theatre--the kind of small hall that the band played prior to its members' admittance to the Millionaires' Club. The gig was hardly an across-the-boards success, but its conclusion suggested that these often-contentious players (Billy Corgan, D'Arcy, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, just back from drug-addiction exile) may have finally loosened up enough to realize that there are worse things than being a rock star--like not being one.
Early on, such an outcome seemed dubious in the extreme. Problems with ticket sales for the show (documented in last week's column) were exacerbated by the kind of demand the musicians had to know would far outstrip the supply. Control-freak behavior on the part of the Pumpkins' camp, which went so far as to ax the guest list of the opening act, Queens of the Stone Age, subsequently made the situation even more untenable. In the end, a great many folks who desperately wanted to get inside the Ogden were unable to do so--and I was nearly one of them. I'd love to tell you how I escaped this fate, but I've been threatened with death and/or emasculation if I do so.
The Queens, who rose from the grave of the now-defunct combo Kyuss, got the sort of shabby treatment that opening acts have grown to expect. The musicians were forced to perform at the very edge of the stage, in front of the Pumpkins' equipment, and the sound was laughably bad, with the bass and drums reduced to undifferentiated sludge. Yet the group's working-class psychedelia and self-deprecating humor (sample song title, as announced by frontman Josh Homme: "I Tried As Hard As I Could, But I Only Got the Bronze") overcame most, if not all, of these obstacles. Songs such as "Regular John" and "If Only," from the Queens' self-titled debut for Loosegroove Records, provoked plenty of drunken head-bobbing from a crowd that should have been eager to be rid of them. The Pumpkins brain trust chose the Stone Agers to open for this mini-tour because of their hipness value, and Homme and company responded by providing a hard act to follow.
The Pumpkins, of course, had plenty of advantages over the Queens, not the least of which was a decent sound check: The acoustics were superb, particularly for the Ogden, a room with notoriously erratic sonics. But while the Pumpkins opened up with a pair of power-chord specials that revved up the throng, torpor soon set in. Much of the fault lay with the material, most of which was brand-new, rather undistinguished and thoroughly unfamiliar to the crowd. During many of the tunes--including "Stand Inside Your Love," the only one Corgan identified by name--attendees were simply too puzzled to get down.
Still, most of the blame fell on the individual musicians, none of whom seemed to realize for the first hour that anyone else was performing alongside them. Drummer Chamberlin, sporting a newly pumped-up frame and a short-cropped coif that made him practically unrecognizable, pounded with authority, but bassist D'Arcy, looking like an inflatable cowgirl love doll in her straw hat, jeans and perpetual pout, seemed to be in a daze, and guitarist Iha spent most of his time staring at his hands, as if he were afraid that Corgan might scream at him for making a mistake--which has happened plenty of times in the past. Corgan, meanwhile, wore an extremely tight Sixties-era brown suit that, in combination with his bald pate, made him a dead ringer for Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. But guffaws were in extremely short supply. Because Corgan seemed less into the songs than into himself, the concert's first half had the feel of a practice session at which the audience's presence wasn't strictly necessary. Indeed, "Today," the main set's concluding number (and an actual hit), came across so perfunctorily that fans desperate to recognize something/anything sputtered instead of exploding.
The three encores, however, were a completely different story. Freed from the responsibility of introducing fresh compositions, the band ripped through a handful of familiar tracks, including "Muzzle" (from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), with a startling lack of self-consciousness. Suddenly, Iha and Corgan were not only acknowledging each other, but chuckling and joking together. The final ditty, "Geek U.S.A." (a Siamese Dream chestnut), provided the evening's peak thanks to what felt an awful lot like spontaneity. Corgan became so enraptured by his own solo that Iha actually set his guitar aside, turned off his amplifier and stared at the head Pumpkin with amazement. So, too, did the ticket-buyers, who likely had never before seen this side of Corgan. Suddenly, he wasn't the tantrum-tossing brat who deserved a couple of hours in time-out, but a likably geeky kid enthralled by the power at his command.
There's no telling precisely what accounted for this attitude change, but odds are strong that the Pumpkins' recent struggles had a lot to do with it. After all, Chamberlin had been kicked out of the band; Scratchie Records, an indie imprint co-owned by D'Arcy and Iha, took a bath; Let It Come Down, Iha's solo album, received withering notices; and Adore, the Pumpkins' 1998 disc, under-performed in a big way. That's a lot of bad karma, so it was probably a tonic for the quartet to simply enjoy playing together again. The Pumpkins may never return to what they were, especially since the latest batch of tunes recall the glory days of the mid-Nineties--which is to say that they sound like part of the past, not part of the future. But for these guys, simply having a good time together is a victory of sorts. They'll probably go back to despising each other next week, but for one night in Denver, they actually made Rodney King's dream come true: They all just got along.
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