“This is a new band.”
On the fourth night of five (1), Billy explained this obvious, but vital truth to the assembled crowd (including myself and my friend Julie who had traveled to San Francisco with me for the residency). The concerts had, thus far, been a blend of familiar (“Cherub Rock,” “Zero”), obscure (“Winterlong,” “Daydream”), new (tracks from Zeitgeist), and the super-new (“99 Floors,” “No Surrender,” etc). All in all, much of the set was the same as it was when I saw the band in Paris. The lighting rig was the same (looming very large on the tiny stage), and the outfits were essentially the same. Though, unfortunately, Billy has stopped resembling the Messiah. (2)
Of course, the beautiful experiment of the shows in Asheville made it clear that these San Francisco shows were going to push far beyond the boundaries of the ordinary concert experience. At each three-hour show of the residency, audiences were treated to post-Zeitgeist compositions. (Including one – “The Rose March” – written on the day we filmed it. See below.) Many of these are beautiful, acoustic shells – demos of a sort – that showcase musical and vocal techniques last seen in the days of Siamese Dream and Pisces Iscariot. And yet, despite these seemingly built-to-please numbers, there’s a newness, a shyness, to their delivery that added a certain electricity to the air in The Fillmore.
To get a hint of this, have a look at Billy’s explanation, and the new song (“The Rose March”) to follow:
Of course, considering the room, it’s not hard to imagine why these moments crackle with electric anticipation. The place fits 1,100 and is about as big as your neighborhood Church. With a small balcony looking over, the room is one big general admission pool. From the beginning, you are involved in something that more closely resembles an intimate private party than a rock concert. Fortunately, the audiences were respectful of each other (heck, they even left gaps in the line outside for driveways!), and though the room was packed, it was far from suffocating. Have a look:
Cozy, right? The Fillmore is an amazing place to see a gig: the staff are friendly, the drinks are reasonably cheap, and there’s even a “welcome man” – dressed in cowboy regalia – who greets each entrant. (Actually, he’s got a rather sharp memory, as well. He remembered Julie on the second night, and greeted us both each and every time afterwards. It was a pleasure to shake his hand at the end of our time there.) And let’s not forget the free, souvenir concert posters that are handed out as you exit. All in all, the place has a real community feel that you just can’t help get swept up in.
Of course, one of the best things about a room like this is that it encourages interaction between band and audience. And indeed, at times it seemed that Billy’s verbosity was directly proportional to the amount of attention the audience was willing to give. Naturally, this can have its drawbacks – we missed out on more than one story from Billy because of rambunctious Cubs fans. (May they live another century under the curse of the goat!) But still, it was a very precious thing to be so close and so connected for so long. Have a look at these clips, the first a great sing-a-long of “Rocket,” and the second which discusses the relationship between the band and San Francisco’s own Jerry Garcia:
What impresses me most about these clips (apart, naturally, from the “dazzling” camera work) is the relaxed, playful attitude that Billy exhibits. (3) For years, I think it’s fair to say, Billy made his reputation on being intense and exacting. For a band whose most memorable, and successful, album is partly remembered for its iconic moon, it’s clear that the Sun has arrived in its sky, as well. These shows demonstrated the beautiful ascendancy of the new Pumpkins, and the graceful transition from days of old. Which isn’t to say that the transition isn’t entirely without a bit of awkwardness, but rather that the band has aged well (despite its subtractions) and the songs of yesterday have become ‘classic’ rather than ‘dated.’
Versions of “Cherub Rock,” “Drown,” “Hummer,” “Zero,” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” prove that the band is still perfectly capable of “bringing the thunder” in very much the same way as it always has. Jeff’s playing is perfectly capable of matching Iha’s, and Ginger’s playing gives us no reason to worry either. In fact, if you were to close your eyes for a moment, you’d never have known that it wasn’t 1995. Of course, versions of “Heavy Metal Machine” and “Glass and the Ghost Children” showed that the band wasn’t unwilling to completely reinvent certain songs to suit their present needs. As Billy explained in “The Rose March, part 1,” “…everything that we’re trying to do is to take this thing forward.” He also pointed out that the only way to do this is to “try new things, make mistakes, push the envelope,” and it would seem that the band has no intention of resting on its laurels.
While certain things like the forty-minute jam of “Gossamer” give us reason to feel both fear and awe at the amazing endurance of this band, other efforts feel decidedly distinct from the Pumpkins of yore. Consider the following pair of clips – the first being “Zeitgeist” and the second “Mama.”
On the surface, they sort of remind me of the days of the Djali Zwan. Acoustic, flirting with country-fied constructions, and full of sunshine and light. These songs are enough to make me consider that, one day, Billy and the Pumpkins might just put out the Anti-Adore – a collection of pretty, wispy ballads. It’d be something, right? More than that, however, these songs make me realize that what characterizes this reunion – more than the absence of James and D’Arcy – is Billy’s willingness to stand fast by his songs, and to stare us down when we criticize. That sense of purpose seemed so far away on the tour for TheFutureEmbrace. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine not feeling joyful in that tiny, experimental space.
And, indeed, joy seemed to be the theme of each evening. The band were all smiles and laughs with one another, the crowd bobbed and weaved in contented glee, the opening acts couldn’t stop gushing about the privilege of being there – all in all, it was smiles from wall to wall. (4) One of my favorite photos – partially in blur-o-vision – shows a moment during the epic “Gossamer” when Jeff paused to watch the others and reflect on the enormity of what was taking place.
For an oft-expressionless guy, I think it says a lot that the intensity of the moment (which reduced one fellow concert-goer – my Di – to trembling) can always yield to this sort of smile. Even Billy – often characterized as “the world’s most difficult man” – was full of playful jokes about his affection for the audience. Consider these two clips – the first, a performance of the new “If All Goes Wrong,” and the second a moment of surprise levity:
When all is said and done, I’m not sure I can really get at the essence of those remarkable evenings in California. For this reason, I have written this review in a general, impressionistic style. I am, of course, beyond willing to talk about the more detailed components of these shows with all comers! What I can say with certainty is that the Pumpkins are back – awesome and splendid – and there’s little reason to imagine that they will soon depart.
This is not Zwan 2.0, as some have charged, and it’s far from Billy’s solo career. It is also far from the Pumpkins of old. The weight of a decade of being “alternative superstars” is gone – much like the movement. In many ways, the new Pumpkins are luckier than the old: they have the benefit of coming pre-made with a back-catalog full of amazing songs, and yet they are free to win our hearts in their own way.
With a sense of continuing amazement, I am able to say that the graceful swans of never have finally, and completely, toppled to the Earth. Viva la Pumpkins!
Until the Live DVD is made available to us, please do consider looking around on SmashingPumpkins.com for more photos and videos.I also took a great many photos and videos, which you can find on the sidebar, or by following these links:
- We attended July 22nd, 25th, 27th, 30th, and 31st! [Back]
- Although, as Spin notes, they do sort of resemble angels. [Back]
- Actually, what might really impress me the most is that we were allowed to take them at all! The band have made it clear that anyone is allowed to photograph, or to record with audio or video recorders at any of their shows. There were a lot of great people there with tons of equipment. Some of whom were at every show, and some, like this guy Jonathan I met, who are working on a fan DVD project. Absolutely awesome. I mean, it’s hard not to feel a little like a dork with a camera bag and camera at a Pumpkins show, but you get over it as soon as you get home. I, for one, am an enormous fan of this new taping policy! [Back]
- Incidentally, the openers ranged from Test Your Relfex – a power emo band (a la Dashboard Confessional) from Southern California – to Stars of Track and Field. Perhaps more will be said of them, later. [Back]