(Photos by B51 Photography
/ Mark Brown
I hate the phrase "grunge music." Bands that are typically associated with the grunge movement have produced some of my favorite records of all time, but "grunge" is about as meaningless a genre descriptor as "indie." And if you don't believe me, just look at the four biggest bands of the grunge era: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins. Nirvana is pop-punk, Pearl Jam is 70s style guitar rock, Soundgarden are psychedelic hard rock, and Smashing Pumpkins are...well, they're a whole lot of things at once. And after watching Smashing Pumpkins at the Beacon Theatre last night (in a mixed acoustic-electro set), I was more aware than ever of how the Pumpkins' focus may be all over the place, but when they're firing on all cylinders, there was no band of the early 90s with more ambition and technical talent.
I was actually a couple minutes late at the Beacon last night cause a fistfight broke out on my subway train which felt apropos when you're at show being fronted by Billy Corgan (a man known for his confrontational behavior). And that wound up being a disappointment cause I missed a song or two of Liz Phair's gorgeous opening set. Liz Phair is one of my 90s blind spots...a fact that I regret sorely after her set which paired deeply personal (and feminist) storytelling with her powerful voice and the unexpectedly soft tones of her acoustic guitar. I'm pretty sure this weekend is going to be the weekend where I finally dive into Exile in Guyville
for the first time.
But the evening belonged to the Smashing Pumpkins although let's be honest; the evening belonged to Billy Corgan. I mean no disrespect to Jimmy Chamberlin or the band's current guitarist, Jeff Schroeder, but more than arguably any other band of the last twenty odd years, few bands have been defined by one artist more than Billy Corgan defined Smashing Pumpkins. He played pretty much all of the instruments on Siamese Dream
. Jimmy Chamberlin is the only founding member of the band left (and even he was fired at one point because he overdosed on heroin with the band's touring keyboardist...who died). And while Billy Corgan's personality can be toxic (he's been vocally transphobic and he adheres to disturbing conspiracy theories), there's no question that he has been one of the most prolific creative forces of the modern music era, and at the Beacon last night, he was at the height of his powers, stripping down some of the Pumpkins' most iconic tracks (and reminding us why we fell in love with them in the first place) and also shooting off into a prog-electro stratosphere.
Historically speaking, the debate of the best guitarist of the grunge era was Kim Thayil or Mike McCready (out of those two, it's McCready). But after watching Smashing Pumpkins, I'm increasingly convinced it's Corgan -- who may not always play these guitar parts live, but he's writing all of them. On their most proggy tracks, Smashing Pumpkins prove themselves to be the heirs to Yes more than they are any of the more conventional forefathers of grunge. And even with an acoustic guitar, it was clear how complex, layered, and mathematically precise Billy Corgan's guitar melodies can be.
Smashing Pumpkins were the "grunge" band for the musician set. That they had a treasure trove of some of the best singles of the era was just the icing on the cake. And hearing an entirely acoustic version of "Tonight, Tonight" made me fall in love with my favorite Pumpkins track all over again. What I generally loved about that track was the ornateness of its strings and its cinematic production, but Billy was able to prove that dramatic nature of the track existed at the song's very core. It wasn't just flash. And the audience was going wild during those singles like "Today" and "1979" (although there was sadly no "Cherub Rock").
I'd say I didn't know about half of the material from last night by name. But that was alright. That I walked out of the set thinking that it was killer as all get out is a testament to the intricate power of Corgan's songwriting. And whereas many of his contemporaries from that era are riding by on nostalgia, Billy Corgan is still pushing boundaries. He's still taking new risks, and it's hard to imagine that he's ever going to have any plans of slowing down.