â€œThe Impossible is Possible, Tonightâ€
Yes. Yes, it is. Why? Because the Smashing Pumpkins are better than I remember them, and we all know how memory romanticizes. Yes, better than ever. What follows is my first ever gig review, with general observations on the individual tracks, and then some discussion of the band, evening, etc. Iâ€™m afraid itâ€™s going to be slightly disjointed (as usual?), as I wrote all of my notes on a small piece of paper, using the back of my hand to steady things, during the gig itself. Sort of, I guess, like William in Almost Famous. For those of you who canâ€™t be bothered to read a great big long review, I present you with this picture which about says it all with respect to the quality of the experience (1):
For those of you who can be bothered to read a great big long review, hereâ€™s the blow-by-blow:
8:00 – The Room at Le Grand Rex is very much like Brixton Academy in London. There are statues, fake plants, and stars painted on the ceiling (these do light up). The stage is relatively small, with a vaulting arc of neon above it. The seats, however, are awesome, as they are leather and soft. And close! Weâ€™re in the tenth row, stage left, and the view is spectacular. Wow. Soaking in the pre-show music has never been so cool. Of course, the urge to â€œrockâ€ is far outpacing the desire to â€œchill.â€ Nevertheless, Iâ€™m a happy monkey.
8:15 â€“ My preparedness to â€œrockâ€ â€“ diminished slightly by the metro journey which featured a man singing along to demos on his casio keyboard â€“ is now verging on over-preparedness. Whereâ€™s the rock?
8:29 â€“ The lights have gone out. The Pumpkins, it seems, need no introduction. Here they come! Oh my god, oh my god…
8:31 – Well, given the number of cameras that are about, it would seem that we could have taped it. Ah well. Billy appears on stage after a very long intro â€“ dressed in a white (Jesus-like) gown. And honestly, how else could this man return to the stage? Still, thereâ€™s the slightest hint that this is a touch self-deprecating, as Billy really mugs it in front of the crowd. Jimmy, of course, is behind the drums, and the new members arrive. The female bass player (Ginger Reyes) is wearing a white skirt that recalls a shredded wedding dress, and the young, Iha-esque rhythm guitar player (Jeff Schroeder) is wearing a high-collared, white suit with cape. Theyâ€™re like the demented prom band you always wanted â€“ the kind that Ally Sheedy, circa The Breakfast Club, would undoubtedly champion. After a few moments, a giant version of the Smashing Pumpkins flag unfurls and the crowd erupts. The band begins a new song (“United States”). It is a long, Gish-esque, number, and it features a lengthy guitar solo. Itâ€™s nice to see that the conventional â€œtake it or leave itâ€ attitude remains.
8:43 â€“ â€œToday.â€ features the extended outro (as on the Storytellers version), and thereâ€™s a goof on the timing between Jimmy and Billy. The first of many lyrical goofs, as it turns out. At one point, Billy promises that they do still know the songs, and that theyâ€™ll get better. (Ha. Yea, verily, I scoff) Very cute, smiles all around.
8:47 â€“ â€œStand Inside Your Loveâ€ â€“ Flag comes down on the solo, and a flurry of neon-esque lights erupt in the background. The light rig is actually very similar to that which Billy used on his solo tour. Of course, the lights are arranged in bars, as opposed to a solid wall of LEDs. Even so, itâ€™s clear that they are going to be used for lava-lamps, clouds, etc. This has always been one of my favorite songs from Machina, and it really improves live. The band is rushing slightly, but you can tell itâ€™s from joyous excitement rather than a lack of rehearsal. They are, in-fact, more in-sync than any previous configuration of the Pumpkins.
8:48 â€“ Iâ€™m fairly certain Iâ€™ve just pogo-ed my blisters into submission. Now, if I could just stop bashing my knees into the seats… eh, who am I kidding? The urge to rock is all the remains.
8:51 â€“ New Song â€“ Iâ€™m sure that clever people could look elsewhere (like here) to find out this songâ€™s title. Iâ€™m going to choose to stick to my notes. For this song, a new, female keyboard player arrives. She looks surprisingly like Linda Strawberry who played on Billyâ€™s solo tour. (2)
8:55 â€“ Another new song, which features the lyric: â€œWill You Ever Stop?â€ â€œStop what,â€ I wonder. Loving this band? Praying for more? Resounding no-s all around. The song has a bit of a Machina feel, and features some â€œchunka-chunkaâ€ guitar playing. Kinda reminds me of some of the grooves from Siamese Dream era b-sides.
9:00 â€“ Another new one. A lot of the lyrics from the new album range from the pointedly bleak (usually when dealing with the current state of U.S. affairs), and the remarkably positive. This one features the lyric: â€œLove is Everything I Want,â€ and it sounds remarkably sincere. There were points with Zwan or TheFutureEmbrace where I really wondered about Billyâ€™s investment in his music. Not here â€“ this really is a revival, and the Pumpkins are Lazarus, back to spread the Good News.
9:04 â€“ â€œHummerâ€ The crowd is very pleased, and it sounds great. Billy is very playful during this track, and it shows just how happy he is to be here. Communication between band members remains excellent, as there are lots of smiles and playful exchanges. One of the things that always made me wonder about the original Pumpkins was the way in which they communicated on-stage. Particularly, post-Mellon Collie. They never seemed truly happy to be together, and I guess they werenâ€™t. Itâ€™s awesome to see how well this band clicks, and just how willing Billy is to take a backseat to his fellow musicians. They really are a band, and not just mercenaries. Awesome.
9:12 â€“ Another new one, with an extended guitar intro. It features the lyric: â€œDonâ€™t you know we cannot die?â€ Of course you canâ€™t. Go get â€˜em, Lazarus!
9:15 â€“ â€œTarantulaâ€ â€“ The new single. The crowd is very positive on it, and it seems to have gotten out in pretty rapid fashion. Obviously, there were some leaks, and itâ€™s telling that the crowd seems to know it so well. After all, it was only released on the day of this show. This is one that makes me think of Zwan, and I suspect that has something to do with the tube-ified guitar, and the more-or-less straightforward rock construction.
9:19 â€“ â€œBullet With Butterfly Wingsâ€ Itâ€™s here that my legs leave our story. Furious pogo-ing by all has resulted in a collective loss of legs. We are floating from here on. I canâ€™t remember this song ever sounding better than this. Iâ€™ve said it before, and Iâ€™ll say it again, the Pumpkins have lost nothing. Nothing.
9:26 â€“ New song featuring a slow, heavy groove. It has a very long guitar intro with a sound that reminds me of tracks from Pink Floydâ€™s The Wall. After a while, Billy provides a brief set of lyrics which conclude with: â€œGo Find Another Son…â€ Billy sits down on an amp towards the back and plays a bit of rhythm guitar, as the stage is yielded to the new guitarist and keyboard player who play a beautiful, arcing solo for minutes. As Iâ€™ve said, I was sold on the reunion by the participation of Jimmy and Billy â€“ they are the Pumpkins. But even so, itâ€™s really awesome to see this band fire on all cylinders. Eventually, this long, slow bridge fades into…
9:35 â€“ New songâ€“ Itâ€™s pretty cold and harsh, full of guitar noise. â€œYou can break my heart againâ€ being the general theme. Is Billy talking to us? To the band? Is this about critical and commercial forces, or is it about some one (or perhaps two)? Whatever the case, the implication is clearly that Billy has his whole heart in the band, and that there are no half-measures here. Still, even at its heaviest, thereâ€™s levity. Billy hits â€œrepeat,â€ steps back from his guitar, and shows his â€œhands-freeâ€ soloing. Itâ€™s actually a clever visual gag, as the rhythm guitar simply filled in his part. The timing of this is really quite remarkable. Awesome. After a bit, a long drum solo brings us on to the next.
9:41 â€“ Weâ€™ve gone semi-acoustic. Billy is sporting an electric-acoustic for this one. He sings: â€œItâ€™s 2007, ok? / Thereâ€™s a war in this U.S.A. / And I ainâ€™t gonna live afraid no more / Ashes ashes… fascist ashes… we all fall down…â€ Itâ€™s surprising, and somewhat refreshing, to see Billyâ€™s artistic talents brought to bear on the situations that inspire his album. This becomes a bit more pointed, later on.
9:44 â€“ Another acoustic number. This time Billy is alone. He thanks the crowd for their enthusiasm, and says: â€œWeâ€™re the Smashing Pumpkins…you should be very afraid… not of the Smashing Pumpkins…the Smashing Pumpkins are your friends…â€ Much cheering ensues.
9:47 â€“ A new song called â€œFor God and Country.â€ It sounds a lot like something from the Pisces Iscariot / Mellon Collie era (doesn’t it?), and is almost R.E.M.-like (circa Document) in its construction. It is, as you can imagine, considerably political â€“ this time with the emphasis placed squarely on the individual. From interviews, and the newly-released album cover, itâ€™s clear that Billy intends for this album to participate in contemporary political discourse. As such, this song really feels like a guide for the individual â€“ an aesthetic building block on which to rest the revolution. Absolutely brilliant.
9:49 â€“ A long, folksy intro to â€œThirty-Threeâ€ on a 12-string acoustic. The keyboard player returns to provide some piano backing, and right around the time Billy sings â€œGraceful swans of never topple to the Earth,â€ I cry. I hadnâ€™t ever dared dream of such a moment as this, and, yet, here I am. One of my favorite poets using my favorite melodies to welcome me home from the musical hinterlands. Billy is all alone on that stage, but our hearts are with him. We love him endlessly, as our silence shows.
9:53 â€“ Still all alone for a solo version of â€œRocket.â€ Itâ€™s really interesting to hear this song in this manner, as I havenâ€™t heard an unplugged version since the Mellon Collie tour. Really lovely, and the crowd seems very appreciative. Iâ€™m still reeling, but itâ€™s awesome to see that the old songs are alive, and that theyâ€™re being invested with the same spirit of reinvention that pervades the rest of the show.
9:58 â€“ “Winterlong” – Billy is still playing his acoustic along with the keyboard player â€“ â€œSome come to harm, others to grace.” I canâ€™t help but reflect on the biographical implications of placing this song here (and the coolness points, as it is, in fact, a rather rare b-side). Billyâ€™s solo album â€“ which preceded the announcement of this reunion – was largely derided, and I think heâ€™s speaking of harm and grace from profound personal experience. And yet, it turns on a positive note (much as this harm/grace dynamic), as Billy is â€œGiving it up to the Sun…â€ Here’s a small snippet:
10:02 â€“ The band returns for â€œTo Sheila.â€ What can you say about this song? Itâ€™s always gorgeous live. I suppose the greatest surprise is that thereâ€™s no pause over the lyric â€œdiscard my friends to change the scenery.â€ Of course, this isnâ€™t where Dâ€™Arcy and James have gone, but there was a hint of a pause for â€œIn the same old house I still find my friends,â€ back in â€œThirty-Three.â€ This present omission, I suppose, speaks to the renewed sense of purpose in the Pumpkins. For the final chorus, thereâ€™s a vocal miscue which seems to have something to do with our new guitar player not quite timing things with Billy. After a moment, Billy invites everyone to sing â€œla la la la laâ€ to the chorus. We oblige. Awesome.
10:07 â€“ â€œGlass and the Ghost Childrenâ€ I always thought that the middle section of this was one of the most exciting parts of the Machina album. Hearing it live, it really flourishes. Despite the starkness of the lyrics, and the distressing, Reptile-esque (thatâ€™s the NIN song) lyrics about spiders, it seems to have morphed into a shoegazer classic. Great stuff.
10:11 â€“ Oh God, my pen! Come on, pen! Whew!…there we go.
10:12 â€“ Thereâ€™s a suitcase next to me? Huh? Nothing to do with the show, but who brings a suitcase to a gig? I mean, ok, there are lots of crew members videotaping things… but this is just some guy. Either heâ€™s a really enterprising, if un-clever, drug dealer, or that guy has such a desire to rock that he needs to carry the extra in a bag. Either way, weird.
10:16 â€“ â€œCherub Rockâ€ â€“ The red/white strobes recall the colors of Siamese Dream, and the.crowd goes ape-shit. (Apologies, gentle readers, but thereâ€™s just no getting around that one. Itâ€™s the only word/concept that fits.) Iâ€™ve never seen so much pogo-ing and fist-pumping in my life. Wow!
10:21 â€“ â€œ1979â€ is met by an intense sing-along. And we really donâ€™t care where our bones will rest… A slight lyric miscue on the final verse, but Billy is helped out mightily by the crowd. (Incidentally, Iâ€™ve never been so happy for YouTube in my life.)
10:26 â€“ Big keyboard intro to â€œTonight, Tonight.â€ This crowd is even crazier than before. Is there a state of post-ape? I guess thatâ€™s where we are. The lyric â€œthe impossible is possibleâ€ is met with an enormous cheer, and just about every â€œbelieve in meâ€ is met with a thunderous applause. Beautiful. Billyâ€™s â€œas I believe in youâ€ becomes much more forceful with each utterance. This is love.
10:30 â€“ Another new track. Kind of Gish-esque with lots of keyboards. Iâ€™m really intrigued by this return-to-roots approach that seems to have taken hold in so many of the new songs. Itâ€™s worth noting that the font on the album cover is that which was used on Gish, and itâ€™s also worth considering that Billy and Jimmy are in a unique position to rebuild everything from scratch. I canâ€™t wait until I get my hands on the album…
10:36 â€“ Rocking out like no one ever has with a new song that combines the metal sound of Machina with the grunge distortion and jazz chording of Siamese Dream. Itâ€™s all green neon and chrome. Awesome.
10:40 â€“ â€œDisarmâ€ electric. However, unlike that version from the VMAs, itâ€™s really restrained and beautiful. Very much like the album with respect to timing. A big sing-along makes Jon cry again. It has also, it seems, permanently stranded him in the third person. Ah well. Worth it.
10:43 â€“ â€œZeroâ€ â€“ I defer to my fellow concert attendees who seem united in their cries of â€œfuck yeah!â€ We all got to yell â€œWanna go for a ride?â€ in unison, and Billy seemed taken aback. Heh. Iâ€™m really impressed at the interplay of guitars, as nothing of the intensity of older Pumpkins shows has been lost. Curiously, Billy defers lead to his new partner. (3) This really is going to be a whole new era.
10:46 â€“ â€œUntitledâ€ â€“ Extended and awesome. The song that the Pumpkins once released to prove that they â€œwere still the same old Pumpkinsâ€ is used brilliantly to demonstrate just how far beyond the â€œsame old Pumpkinsâ€ theyâ€™ve traveled. This version is intense, and met with great enthusiasm. As an aside, thereâ€™s a positively beautiful smile on the bass player as Billy cracks a private joke. Itâ€™s really great to watch them at work…
10:52 â€“ 10:54 â€“ Loudest pre-encore crowd, ever. The cheering and singing never waver in their intensity. Wow.
10:55 â€“ â€œShameâ€ â€“ This somewhat stark tune is completely reinvented as a crowd-pleaser. Itâ€™s impossible to really stay married to the somberness demanded by such a piece, and it shows. The phaser is used beautifully on the solo, and the piece really transcends its origin. Great stuff. (Proof, also, that Billy can choose anything from the catalog and the crowd will go nuts. Cool.)
11:00 â€“ â€œSilverfuckâ€ â€“ This crowd goes absolutely insane. The band is so tight – better than Iâ€™ve ever heard them. Billy is literally howling over the song for much of the time, and yet the timing never fails. Amusingly, the middle verse is preceded by a reasonably spot-on rendition of the first verse of â€œThe Endâ€ by The Doors. No doubt a deference to Parisâ€™ most infamous (and unwanted?) cemetery resident.
11:11 – 11:13 â€“ Weâ€™re waiting â€œpatiently.â€ The crowd is still intense.
11:13 â€“ â€œAnnie Dog,â€ Adore-style instrumentation makes this the first time Iâ€™ve ever heard the track reproduced in its original format. It is, in fact, very faithful, and really quite a great little groove track.. Interesting, Billy has a glow-in-the-dark tambourine which he uses to front the band. Not very â€œrock starâ€ of him, I must say.
11:18 â€“ Billy thanks everyone from the bottom of his heart. He promises to return for a festival, and then later for a â€œbig rock explosion.â€ Also mentions that youâ€™ll be able to find him on the Champs-Elysees, strolling.
11:19 â€“ â€œMuzzle.â€ Perfect. The crowd shouts along, as do I (hey! the first person returns!), and the silence of the world is forever lost to memory. Iâ€™ve never seen a more rapturous round of applause in my life. Positively beautiful. On a personal note, if I couldnâ€™t have â€œMayonaise,â€ Iâ€™ll happily settle for â€œMuzzle.â€ What a happy monkey am I!
11:24 â€“ Billy returns to the front of the stage alone to thunderous applause. He hangs about, and seems genuinely touched by everything. The crowd cheers and claps in rhythm for three minutes… and then, heâ€™s gone, and so are we.
So, there we are. If you trust my opinion, then I would tell you to get to a Pumpkins show no matter what you have to do. This was, without question, the best performance Iâ€™ve ever personally witnessed them give, and it really did blow the doors off any bootlegs I have. The band has a renewed sense of purpose, and focus, which really does remind me of the remarkable turnaround of bands like Nine Inch Nails. The old and the new blend quite seamlessly, and itâ€™s clear that the â€œPumpkins aestheticâ€ prevails. Positively mind-blowing, when you consider just how drastically music has changed since the Pumpkins began.
Here’s the official setlist, just for the record:
In July, the Pumpkins will be playing a long stint in San Francisco. I have tickets for four of these shows, and, if you approve of these â€œgigographies,â€ I think I might try to comment on the experience, micro-deadhead in scope, of following a band. They’re even encouraging people to take recordings (audio and video), which would make for an awesome, multi-media experience! Either way, Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll have a hard time shutting me up about the shows. Until then, donâ€™t wait up for me…
Welcome back, Pumpkins. We missed you, and we love you.
- So, how did I get to this gig? Well, itâ€™s a bit of folly, to be sure. I got my tickets on e-bay, as the online ticketing system was completely overwhelmed on the day the tickets went on sale. After that, it was simply a matter of rounding up a stalwart ally (in this case, Neal), and heading down to Paris. I elected to head down a couple of days early, and so wander around the Louvre, Musee Dâ€™Orsay, etc. The idea to write about this gig was incidental, but Iâ€™ve always liked the idea of doing something tangible with my concert-going experiences. Which, dear reader, is why youâ€™re reading this rather-irrelevant footnote. 😉 [Back]
- It is, in fact, Lisa Harriton. [Back]
- Almost said â€œax-mate,â€ but thought better of it. Whew! [Back]