Review: James Iha Returns To Smashing Pumpkins & Band Debuts New Music In LA

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“Your hands are cold!”

My first and so far only interaction with Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins. When I walked up to the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, with Brett Buchanan of Alternative Nation, we had decided to step out of the VIP line for minute or two and wait for further clarification as exactly to where the actual rollcall line may be. Luckily at the crosswalk, just about a foot away from where we were standing, we managed to catch Jimmy Chamberlain for a quick interaction and picture. I got to shake his hand and it was those exact words, “your hands are cold”, that he chose to say to me. The jovial smile on his face, a hearty laugh and a brief interaction I will never forget. For the time allotted, it was really all I could have asked for and I have no regrets.

Last year, when the In Plainsong tour brand had been launched by the Pumpkins, I was sad because there were no West Coast dates. So, naturally when the Pumpkins came to town this time around I decided to go and for some stupid reason, almost didn’t. Thankfully we managed to score press credentials and retrospectively, if I hadn’t gone to the show, I would’ve shot myself in the foot at least once and grieved. The In Plainsong experience is already a different kind of Smashing Pumpkins experience but last night, well, “the impossible was possible tonight”. After settling into the venue, which seemed almost to function more as a cathedral ready for a deep choir to sing hymnals to God, the show’s itinerary started with Liz Phair, also out of Chicago. I would say I do see a lot of commonality between her reflections on love from certain perspectives I’ve seen in the Smashing Pumpkins’ music. A similar sense of artistry and integrity was there and I enjoyed her experience very much. Phair very much set the tone for the more intimate setting.

Now to be quite honest, the strangest thing happened for the first couple songs once the Pumpkins delved onto the stage. First off, I showed up a song and a half late from a smoke break outside and of course, the one song I really was hoping to see in its entirety was “Stumbleine”, I only managed to see half of it. So, that really set me off for a certain disappointed mood, but more so in myself rather than actually was going on with the band. The stage was a very beautiful work of art in and of itself with the backdrops changing every couple of songs from a cherry blossom forest in bloom to to a starlit night. After “Stumbleine” had emerged into “Tonight, Tonight” I began to somewhat feel at ease more. What surprised me so much about the set list was that absolutely incredible diverse setlist that I experienced, here were songs from Mellon Collie as well as Zwan material, and not to mention various covers and Billy Corgan solo material. Four to five songs into the setlist, I became still somewhat uneasy again. It wasn’t the music that set me off, I just had some very deep anxiety in myself and was really trying to work it out. The problem was it was starting to detract from the music. I was really trying my best to stay in the present moment.

Obviously my subconscious was trying to prepare me for what is coming next and absolutely no one would even guess about was what was to come. Now if I had remembered it was someone’s birthday, I might have had some kind of hint. Jeff Schroeder walked off the stage and I presumed that Billy was going to go into a solo piece like his cover of “Landslide” or maybe even “Disarm”. I knew that they were supposed to be some kind of Siamese Dream suite in the middle, as with last tour’s Adore suite, but then a mysterious figure merge from stage left.

I was caught looking at something for minute and then I heard the front row burst into an array of screams and in audible noises, and I was very curious about what was happening. Once I stood up and got a better look, it was a sight I never thought I would live to see. There onstage was Billy Corgan and James Iha, who had left the band years ago and allegedly was never invited to subsequent reunions. His last show was at Metro Cabaret in Chicago, Illinois on December 2nd, 2000. People always love to emphasize this point about the current state of Smashing Pumpkins, that they aren’t complete without the original four, who cultivated the band’s fame and in its rise through the late 80s, early 90s and until December 2, 2000, when the last show in the original incarnation of the Pumpkins took place.

I couldn’t believe it. I was yelling out expletives and I couldn’t seem to do anything more than that for a good 60 to 90 seconds. It was the most overwhelming energy I have ever felt at a concert with only about 1,200 – 1,600 people in sold out seats. An incredible ovation emerged, from a crowd that seemed to have been anticipating this moment for an untold amount of time. Then I realized, this is what my mind and body was telling me. The Siamese Dream suite was peculiar and I mean that no way in a negative sense. With “Soma”, it had Billy sitting down and singing with the keyboards while James and Jeff stood side-by-side playing guitar. It was the damnedest thing, but I wouldn’t have added any other way. It was so poignant to see it happen. The whole band was gently burning as a flare, a chemistry that was just quite frankly so unexpected. I never really concretely thought what a Corgan and Iha reunion might look like, but tonight showed it to be the best thing that ever could be as a stand alone show. With Katie Cole on bass and vocals, Sierra Swan with several alternating roles involving vocals, bass and keyboards, Jeff on guitar, Billy being the front man of everyone’s dreams, with James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain on top of that, to me there is no better contest.

It was really like a dream and at the point that I’m writing this, I’m really still having a lot of trouble truthfully believing it. It was incredibly heartwarming to see James and Billy perform “Mayonaise” together in 16 years, given the history of that song. They gave me an incredible shiver down my spine as I came to realize what was really happening, even now. Songs like “Rocket” and “Spaceboy” were given due well treatment as songs that aren’t usually held from the album, opposed such as the hits “Today” and “Cherub Rock”, the former of which was also played with Iha. But to me, they both hold a great place in my heart and I had never seen them before live before. “Whir”, from Pisces Iscariot, also made its live debut this tour and came out as strong as the recording with great sense of atmosphere and melody. The strong keyboard elements made for a more complete  sound especially with the presence of the mellotron from the Siamese Dream record, used also by such great acts like the Beatles. “Disarm” was also given very unique go with James Iha playing guitar as Billy used keys and synths while he sang. I know there are several versions of that song that exist in a  live context but I’ve never seen a more absolutely heartfelt version.

The whole Siamese Dream suite was was truly something to witness. It was a concert between concerts and it was a moment between moments where time really did stay standstill as it turned back the page of time and melded with the future of the Smashing Pumpkins in an incredible demonstration of alchemy. When the Siamese Dream suite had ended and returned I was also given another pleasant surprise. Billy Corgan took a more traditional front man role and lay down his guitar as he stood, danced and sang magnificently over rare tracks such as “Eye” and “Saturnine”. My third time seeing the Pumpkins and every time has been a very emotional and special time for me because of what their music has done for me and the circumstances surrounding those shows. But this time it really came full circle as I saw not just myself, but other people as well, grow. Unfortunately I see a lot in the press much criticism regarding Corgan and the Pumpkins as a band moving forward. But here, they were not moving backwards either, inviting Iha. I saw a band paying tribute to some of the most hollow aspects of their history and in an undaunting way. It was not a cash grab reunion and nor was it publicized. It was a complete surprise and from what I gather, a birthday present as James Iha turned 48 today. Katie Cole’s beautiful voice and presence sparkled with pieces like “Stand Inside Your Love” and the cover of Hole’s “Malibu” and took a frontwoman presence never really seen in the Pumpkins before but certainly adds to the richness.

For the encore,  “Angie” by the Rolling Stones was covered by the band and James Iha came back on stage with the full band. I would also like to say for everyone reading, that they if they have heard about the new album that is supposed to be set for release sometime after this tour, if the new songs they are any indicator of what is being released: everyone is going to be happy about them. The song they closed with, the beautiful quasi-ballad “Amarinthine”, the energy of which I saw it  performed in, the smiles on everyone’s faces as they sailed deeply into new Pumpkins history and territory was the most heartwarming thing that I’ve seen happen in music in a very long time. The Smashing Pumpkins have an open door policy regarding membership now these days, and if that is the case, then I see the strongest future for the band possible. People have equated the future of this band with such negative things and I am just sick and tired of it.

Every time I see the Pumpkins, since I saw them first in 2014 after years of waiting, have only gotten better and better and better. I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon. Last night’s show had the most intimate, personal, real and nearly trancelike affect that I’ve ever been to which really made me question what kind of state of mind I was even in. It showed that this is a band that over a period of nearly 30 years has come full circle to accept itself:the good, the bad and the ugly.

I know through this music I have grown from the lessons that I have been able to gather from it and now I see a similar experience unfold before my eyes from some of music’s most brilliant minds in the last half century. I hope one day I can really grasp the gravity of what happened at the Ace Hotel.

I’ve never seen a stronger and more diverse set list, band energy and charisma from this camp of people. I absolutely cannot wait to see what is in store for this band and music at large because anymore, I really see people growing with music again. As long as we continue to perpetuate this attitude, music will never get stale. Music will never get boring and people will continue to inspire each other for ages. Everyone involved tonight: the band, the audience and everyone who helped put on this event and tour has deep thanks from my heart and from everyone at AlternativeNation. Naturally the world must be ending and if it is ,well, I’ve seen the best incarnation of the Pumpkins ever. So if the world is really ending, I can die with some sense some greater sense of satisfaction.

 

Setlist

Cardinal Rule
Stumbleine
Tonight, Tonight
The World’s Fair
Space Oddity
Thirty-Three
Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea

Siamese Dream Suite featuring James Iha

Mayonaise
Soma
Rocket
Spaceboy
Today
Whir
Disarm

Sorrows (In Blue)
Eye
Saturnine
Identify
1979
Stand Inside Your Love
Pinwheels
Lily (My One and Only)
Malibu
Spaniards

Encore:
Angie
Happy Birthday
Amarinthine