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April 23, 2004

Zwan be damned: Corgan shines in solo debut

Let's face the facts: Billy Corgan is a hit-or-miss kind of guy. While his best songwriting has secured him a place in the canon of '90s rock, his low points are nothing if not laughable. For every Siamese Dream he's penned there's a Mary Star of the Sea waiting to call his talents into question. This being the case, it was with a high degree of skepticism that I received the news a few months back that Billy Corgan was working on a solo record. I believe my exact words at the time were "Billy, please don't fuck this one up." I was visited again with this thought just a few weeks ago when I received word that Corgan would be playing his first show as a solo artist at our very own Metro. It's been over 10 years since the Smashing Pumpkins were at their creative peak and just shy of 10 since Corgan has issued a product of any worth. The odds just didn't look good.

Despite these unavoidable facts, I somehow found myself, on a cold Saturday morning, waiting in line in front of the Metro, hoping for the privilege to pay $37.50 for what would almost surely amount to a waste of my time. What could possibly cause a levelheaded young man such as myself to act in such a manner, you ask? Well, quite honestly, ever since the breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins, I have harbored this secret fantasy of an acoustic Billy Corgan solo record. Go back and listen to Siamese Dream-era b-sides like "Soothe" and "Landslide," or even later songs like "Stumbleine". There's no denying that Corgan possesses considerable fingerstyle skill, as well as a seldom-used talent for understatement.

Additionally, there was the allure of being closer to a childhood hero than I have ever had the chance to fully enjoy live. While I managed to see the Pumpkins twice during the height of their popularity, I had never been close enough to the band to verify that it was actually them. Finally, I just couldn't help but ask myself, what if it turns out to be good? What if I managed to witness the very first show in what turned out to be a brilliant solo career? This could be one to tell the grandkids, I told myself, as I waited in the cold.

I imagine that I was not the only skeptic in the audience when Billy took the stage on Monday night, unaccompanied for the first time in his career. He took his place on stage in a plush, red armchair, flanked by electric candles and lanterns, framed by a stained glass window, and rendered against a backdrop of color-changing stars. If his stage set-up was not minimal, his instrumental set-up was: just one acoustic guitar and a few strategically placed microphones.

He began, carefully fingerpicking and singing, in that distinctly nasal tone, "Cross your gate and skip a beat/Ring your bell and cross the street/Will you come and take a peek?/Who's there?" From the opener "The World's Fair," he quickly segued into "Black Irish," wherein he quietly pleaded, "Emily, Emily I can't, Emily/I can't leave," over a fragile guitar line. This, I thought to myself, must be what it feels like to win the lottery.

As we soon found, most likely from looking at the handsome playbills handed to us at the door (replete with photos of the finest Roman architecture and sculpture), the night's set was entitled "Chicago," and comprised of 12 songs tied together by the presence of Billy's hometown. And don't think that he didn't take every opportunity to declare himself a local son. "Are there any Cubs fans in the room?" he asked jovially, to predictable applause and hooting. After professing his own love for the Cubs, he admitted to harboring a soft spot for the Sox as well: "The Sox remind me of one of those uncles who get too drunk at the Christmas party, but I love them anyway." Having ensured that the audience was eating out of the palm of his hand, he enlisted our help for the chorus of "Black Sox," an ode to Chicago baseball, with crowd pleasing lines like "Now somebody listen/Cause somebody cares/That the Cubbies are winning today"

Corgan then unveiled the only real misstep of the night: "Friends as Lovers." Musically, the song was questionable at best, often risking classification as adult contemporary. The lyrics, however, are what put it over the top, submitting some cringe-worthy lines that manage to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most trite verse in Billy's catalogue. "Darling boy (she says)/You're on my mind (she says)/I feel your skin (she says)/As if it's mine (she says)" At least he didn't try to tell us that God is empty again.

Luckily, Billy quickly atoned for this sin with "Say Goodbye," whose guitar line and melody could easily have been penned by the late Elliott Smith. On "Bobby Franks," he was joined by his only accompaniment of the night, Native American flutist (and, apparently, new friend of Billy Corgan) Robert Mirabal. Mirabal's fluting alternated between haunting and intense, providing an interesting contrast to Corgan's strums and tale of a mundane life.

As the set winded down, Billy openly professed his love for his home state a la Sufjan Stevens with "El-a-noy." He apparently adapted this song from a 19th century piece he found while on the final Pumpkins tour and fitted his own lyrics to it. While his voice had remained somewhat reserved throughout the evening in keeping with the tone of the songs, on "El-a-noy" we finally caught a brief glimpse of the full strength of his vocals. The set proper closed with the sprawling epic "Columbus," named after a certain Spanish explorer. While it opened with the lines "Columbus sailed on many moons/On a sea of hope," the song quickly worked to redeem itself, as Corgan wisely moved into increasingly allegorical territory, closing earnestly with the lines "Mother I cried/For us/For us."

If I've managed to build up your excitement for the upcoming album during the course of this article, there's a catch: none of the songs played at Monday's show are currently planned for release. The full-length record that Corgan is currently working on, which he joking referred to as "an alternative album," will most likely be a rock record in the vein of his previous outfits. "I'm rockin' some new jams!" he declared during the first encore. Sadly enough, the "Chicago" suite of songs was, apparently, destined only to be showcased during this one performance. Still, depending on the relative success of Corgan's solo career, there's always the possibility that they will see release later on.

So what's the final verdict? The new songs were quiet, reflective, lighthearted and warm; quite a contrast to the walls of guitars and angst-filled sneer that led the Smashing Pumpkins to the top of the alt-rock heap all those years ago. Yet, as any fan can tell you, the Pumpkins wrote a number of vulnerable acoustic songs that were arguably better than their singles; it's just not what they made their name on. In that sense, these 12 new songs seem very much an extension of the Smashing Pumpkins quieter moments. Sure, all of the trademark flaws are still accounted for: overindulgence, trite lyrics and subject matter, the all-black outfits. Without these things, he just wouldn't be Billy Corgan. Yet, despite them, Chicago's living rock hero managed to show a musical maturity that has heretofore been only scarcely hinted at in his work. And for someone who built a career selling teenage angst, that's saying a lot. As of today, I'm calling off all bets on Billy Corgan.