Friday, November 28, 2008

The Smashing Pumpkins - Live 2008.11.26

When the Smashing Pumpkins reunited and started playing live shows, I was fairly excited and even thought they sounded decent based on bootlegs recordings. When Zeitgeist came out, I was disappointed by the blandness and uniformity of the album. Since then, they released the download-only American Gothic EP, the “G.L.O.W.” b/w “Superchrist” digital single, and the If All Goes Wrong documentary/live DVD. The EP shows the Pumpkins moving in a more acoustic direction, exploring complex vocal layering, and generally being much more creative than what Zeitgeist indicated. The single is okay but nothing revelatory. I haven’t watched the DVD yet, but I know that it contains about a half-dozen new songs that are continuing in the direction of the EP but making progress. Now on tour, the band has another four or five new songs, most of which I actually really like.


On the band’s current tour, christened their 25th Anniversary Tour, the band has been playing double-night residencies in each city they play in. They use just about the same setlists in each city for the two nights; the first is billed as “Black Sunshine” and the second as “White Crosses”. The former tends towards the louder, heavier, more guitar-centric songs while the latter is more balanced with softer and more acoustic songs and thus probably more interesting. In a few cities, they just are just playing one night, blending the two setlists together. One of these cities was St. Louis, which is where I caught them.

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: The Fox Theater
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 26, 2008
Opening Act: None

Setlist:
01. Tarantula
02. G.L.O.W.
03. Kill Your Parents Siva
04. Eye
05. Mayonaise
06. Tonight, Tonight
07. A Song for a Son
08. Superchrist
09. Heavy Metal Machine White Rabbit [Jefferson Airplane cover] Glass' Theme
10. Landslide [Fleetwood Mac cover]
11. Disarm
12. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
13. Soma
14. Cherub Rock (“Cocktail Version” tease)
15. Cherub Rock (normal version)
16. Zero
17. Bodies
18. Gossamer
19. The Sounds of Silence [Simon and Garfunkel cover] Lil' Red Riding Hood [Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs cover]
20. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [Pink Floyd cover]

Review:
After reading Pitchfork’s roast of the current Smashing Pumpkins tour and being aware that Corgan has a tendency to preach or rant or just get obnoxious at recent shows, I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of this show. However, I liked the look of the setlists and sound of the bootlegs that I have been able to get a hold of. I went on in hoping for the best.

The core touring band (singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin from the old days along with second guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes, and keyboardist Lisa Harriton) came out to some guitar feedback that led into “Tarantula”, the lead single from Zeitgeist. Next came the new single, “G.L.O.W.”. Both of these newer songs were performed well, but neither is a particularly great song; both are loud, heavily-distorted rockers, but at least “G.L.O.W.” has some good dynamics.


The band then started doing a little jam bit that I was fairly sure I recognized, and sure enough, it was the intro jam to “Siva” (dubbed “Kill Your Parents” by fans), only performed live back in the day. “Siva” is simply one of the best songs from the Pumpkins’ 1991 debut album, Gish, and its live performance was quite a treat, since they rocked it well and extended the middle break sections into creative feedback and guitar jams. This was followed by “Eye”, one of the band’s coolest songs (available on the Lost Highway soundtrack or the Rotten Apples greatest hits compilation). It is also one of the most electronic, which means live renditions never mimic the studio recording. This take was largely adapted to guitars, which made it rock even harder, and several parts were still done on keyboards to keep with the general sound.

Harriton’s keyboards on “Eye” were accompanied by second keyboardist Kristopher Pooley and by 10-string violinist Gingger Shankar. These two musicians are new to the Pumpkins’ touring band, and they appeared now and then on certain songs, totalling about half of the concert. Some songs also featured Gabrial McNair on trombone and Stephen Bradley on trumpet. So far, all of the touring members are yet to appear credited on a studio release, but it would seem that at least the core three members (Schroeder, Reyes, and Harriton) are full-time members. However, Corgan does have quite the reputation for being a perfectionist and playing all the non-drumming parts on his albums, so I suspect there is little chance of these members appearing on record. (Past touring keyboardists, such as Jonathan Melvoin and Mike Garson, and Chamberlin’s replacements during his temporary leave of absence were never considered official members, but original bassist D’arcy Wretzky’s replacement, Melissa Auf der Maur, was somewhat recognized as an official member.)

All these additional members really made “Tonight, Tonight” sound full and comparable to the orchestrally-arranged studio version. They stayed out for “A Song for a Son”, which is a new, as-of-yet-unreleased song that features some nice guitar work and classic Pumpkins dynamics. The melody is catchy, it builds up into a great full arrangement, and it has some good keyboard parts, too. Out of all the songs the reunited Pumpkins have performed, this may be my favorite.

Next came “Superchrist” (available as the b-side of “G.L.O.W.”), a long jam with just a few lyrics. Corgan has claimed the song is the sound of the band “back in free territory”, but I think it’s the sound of a band that likes to play really loud electric guitars and play mundane metal riffs. They can do better, and most of their other new songs demonstrate this.

A restructured “Heavy Metal Machine” followed. The band has played it consistently since reforming, and they continually rearrange it, in part by throwing in lyrics from other peoples’ songs. Other than the frequent “White Rabbit” segments (which are the coolest parts of the medley), on this tour they’ve usually thrown in parts of Laid Back’s “White Horse”, Ted Nugent’s “Strangehold”, and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”. (Since I am not familiar with any of these songs, I cannot verify if they were done at this performance.) Generally, though, the song just felt overlong. It seemed that the band was just reaching for any excuse to add another segment to the song, and many of these extensions were based on just using different thickly distorted guitar riffs that don’t do anything for me. It ended well, though, by segueing into the awesome Machina II rocker “Glass’ Theme”. I wonder if the lyrical content of the medley is coherent in any sense.

After that, everyone but Corgan and Schroeder left the stage, and they traded their electric guitars for acoustics to do a pleasant version of “Landslide”. Schroeder left while Reyes, Shankar, and the horn section returned for “Disarm”, which Billy claimed he wrote at 6am while standing under the St. Louis Arch. Since he also said during the show that he likes to lie and he does it frequently, something tells me his story is inaccurate. You can never be sure, though.

Billy left the stage, but the rest of the band stayed to do a beautiful take on a rearranged “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, which was never performed live before this tour. Billy then came back and led the band through four really awesome classics. “Soma” was great, but “Cherub Rock” was one of the best moments of the show. It started with a false start because Corgan forgot to switch guitars, but then the guitarists did a short smooth-jazzy “cocktail version” of the song before the band played the real thing.

The last part of the show was the Billy jam-fest. “Gossamer” is an unreleased song that has been played since the initial reunion shows, and it was given a decent rendition without doing the full half-hour version from some of the concerts last year. The song is a long, multi-segment prog-rock piece that is largely an excuse for Billy to do some extended guitar solos, but it does sound pretty cool. This was followed by two covers morphed into incredibly long jams that crossed over from the cooler prog-rock territory into the somewhat less-cool space-jam territory. “The Sounds of Silence” sounds nothing like the original and wasn't particularly worth the amount of time it took to perform. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” mostly followed this pattern, but it was superior due to a better arrangement. After a significant period of aimless noodling, the band hit their experimental jam peak when the members started changing instruments. First, Corgan set down his guitar and played on some timpani (even though he didn't really do anything that cool with them). Next, Schroeder set down his guitar and started playing with a theremin and Reyes traded her pick for a bow. The resulting segment of abstract jamming was actually pretty cool. It was out there, but it came together and worked. (It helps that theremins and the like fascinate me.)

Now, on the whole, those three jam sessions lasted about 45 minutes, and although they were mildly interesting, they weren't that great, and the worst part is that afterwards they just left. No encore, no goodbyes, nothing. They just left and the stage lights came on. I think everyone was expecting the band to come back and break out into “1979” or something similarly riveting. After all the abstract spaciness, I think everyone was sort of mellowed out and ready for a rousing conclusion. And yet it failed to materialize.

I can’t really complain too much here, especially since the band played for nearly two and a half hours and they did do a lot of my favorite songs. However, I did notice that we only got twenty songs, whereas every other show on this tour thus far has had more like 23 or 24. (“Only” must of course be used relatively here.) Again, I think the jamming only occasionally entered exciting territory, but I probably wouldn't be so negative about it if they had finished with just one or two more great songs. It would have really sealed the deal and made for a near-perfect night. As it was, I enjoyed it a lot, but it just felt like it wandered off at the end of the night and got lost out past Neptune.

The setlist is also intriguing. Most nights they've played two or three of their newly-written unreleased songs, but on this night we just got “A Song for a Son”. As much as I like it, other new compositions (“99 Floors”, “Owata”, “As Rome Burns”) were overlooked. Also noticeably absent was anything from the recent American Gothic EP, which I rather liked.

Actually, if you analyze the setlist, you’ll notice that the greatest concentration comes from the Pumpkins’ two best-selling albums (at a rate of four from each: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream. Much as I love these albums, I also love Adore, from which nothing was played, and Machina II, from which only one brief song was played. Furthermore, only one song was played from each other album (Gish, Machina, and the recent Zeitgeist). None of this would be of much concern if it weren't for this tour being billed as a 25th anniversary tour. If this is supposed to celebrate 25 years of their (discontinuous) existence, why would the song selection be so imbalanced? Wouldn't it have been cooler to play a few of the rare early songs? Couldn't one or two of the less creative extended jams have been replaced each for three or four better selections, or at least the more obnoxious segments of the jams excised in favor of five minutes towards an Adore track?

What I’m trying to say is that I liked a lot of what the band did, but the more directionless jams were a lot less engaging than they could have been. I’m happy to have my favorite band back and putting on fairly good shows, but they are holding themselves back from being truly impressive and invigorating. They have potential, but they aren't living up to it quite as fully as they could. Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to say this show was incredibly enjoyable. I never got to see the band in their original lifetime, but I am not disappointed by their current incarnation. The various replacement members actually do a decent job of living up to the original members, and they play some great material. Despite their many imperfections, they play a good show.

Score: B+

P.S. In Atlantic City, the band covered the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”, obviously one of my personal favorites. If anyone comes across a recording of this performance, please let me know.

[Edit 2008.12.12: Via LiveSmashingPumpkins.com I found the cover of "Nowhere Man" from the Atlantic City show. In fact, if you're willing to pay, you can get mp3s, flacs, or CDs of soundboard recordings from each night of the tour. I bought this concert and the single "Nowhere Man" track, and the quality is great.]

[Edit 2014.10.12: The concert recording is now available from livedownloads.com.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2008.11.15

As is probably obvious by now, I usually write reviews on rock music, and I don't think I've yet even really gone into jazz or folk (but maybe a little dance or pop). I've also spurned classical music... until now. I actually saw the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra about a month ago, but I didn't review it because I didn't feel qualified or knowledgeable enough on the subject. Although I still feel that way, I was invited by Chris Maue of Highway 61 Revised to see the symphony again, as he was invited by Eddie Silva, Publications Manager of the SLSO, for a so-called "Blogger's Night". Other reviews and commentaries on the night by the other invited bloggers should be available from http://www.slso.org/blog/. (Chris' can be found here.) Due to the nature of the event and my invitation, I figure that it's only appropriate for me to comment. And in the future, maybe I'll review other classical concerts I attend. Anyway, on to the review:

Event: Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (loosely part of the Guitar Festival), conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 15, 2008

Program:
1. A Prayer Out of Stillness, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, 2007, featuring John Patitucci on acoustic bass and electric bass guitar
2. Beautiful Passing, composed by Steven Mackey, 2008, featuring Leila Josefowicz on violin
3. The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, 1911-13

Review:
I took four pages of notes while listening, but most of them are incomprehensible and I think that getting that detailed wouldn't be helpful. I'll just go a work at a time and then give an overall impression.

The first piece, A Prayer Out of Stillness, was probably the one that netted the association with the Guitar Festival, which was actually more related to the previous Thursday, where the SLSO played Frank Zappa and some other out-of-the-ordinary pieces at the Pageant. Regardless, this piece featured John Patitucci on electric 6-string Yamaha bass for half of it. The work is divided into four parts, and each did have a different feel.

The first part, "First Prayer," featured Patitucci on his upright bass, mostly plucking in the higher registers, but then also bowing. The second part, "Second Prayer," had Patitucci switch to the electric bass for some intense fingerpicking runs in the higher strings. Throughout, the rest of the orchestra, using only a fairly small set of musicians, played fairly simple parts, clearly just laying a foundation for the soloist to work off of.

The third part, "Call and Response," was just that: a second bassist came out on an upright, and Patitucci stayed on his electric. The other musicians remained silent as the two bassists held what in the rock world would be called a bass-off. I figure there are two ways to view this: either it's a very, very skilled, theoretically masterful improvisation, or it's just "disconnected noodling" (as my compatriot half-jokingly quipped). I was fairly absorbed by it all, really. The dual nature of flawless electric fingerpick-soloing and comparable bowing in the lower ranges on the acoustic bass was pretty cool. The fourth part, "Third Prayer," was something of a reprise of the second part, with Patitucci on acoustic bass and the rest of the orchestra again in tow.

Instrumentally and compositionally speaking, Beautiful Passing was a step higher. The orchestra brought out some percussion (including a drumset!), a harp, a piano, and the woodwinds and brass (which were notably absent from the previous piece). Leila Josefowicz was featured on violin. She led things off, but then the orchestra started doing short crazy parts every few measures. The piece continually alternated between very frenetic segments and much calmer parts with Josefowicz a bit more prominent. At the height of it all, she was bowing her highest notes, then doing great trills accompanied by the woodwinds, and then sliding all over the strings. Things got progressively louder and louder, more and more intense, with Josefowicz all over the place and the orchestra crashing hard on the percussion and hitting some dark notes. Eventually it calmed down and came to a slow end with Josefowicz on a final long note.

The Rite of Spring was probably the highlight of the night. Although I'd heard the piece before, I'd never seen it performed, and it is quite the experience. A video projector carried explanatory text during the piece, as it was originally written for a ballet, and the context would have been otherwise lacking. "Part One: The Adoration of the Earth" begins with a pleasant festival, with the woodwinds, brass, and strings all doing nice bits, but slowly moving in some more intense and dark parts. Before long, timpani entered, the cellists were tapping their bows against the strings, and the other string musicians were doing great pizzicato parts.

As the festival dance gets a bit more extreme, things continued to amp up and get darker. The cellos in particular were great, and the timpani and cymbals let us know things were awry. During a duel with a rival tribesman, the instruments exhibited jabs in line with what must have been the fight. A new cacophony rose as a sage appeared, but then suddenly things settled down significantly. The music droned at low volume and got steadily more intense before pausing briefly to transition to "Part Two: the Sacrifice". Strange sounds started things off; the violins did a quick repeating ascending part, then the music became more drone-like before once again becoming very intense. As a girl is sacrificed, the strings shrieked and the percussion crashed about. After slowing and calming down for a minute, the music returned to the frenzy, and as the sacrificial girl fell, the pitch of the instruments rose and suddenly stopped.

For the most part, the music of A Prayer Out of Stillness failed to impress, but I understand that the main draw was the featured bassist, and Patitucci was certainly talented. I rather wish that I could have seen him perform a good melody over a more interesting piece. Beautiful Passing was more complex and dynamic, and Josefowicz instilled a lot of passion into the piece and helped keep my attention. However, even she was no match for The Rite of Spring, which blew me out of the water. I can't think of any other piece I've heard that is quite as extreme and dramatic and nearly avant-garde (while still maintaining structure) as this one. The orchestra really put a lot of energy into the work and it showed well.

As a sort of sidenote, I rather enjoy observing the nature of a symphony concert. The culture is somewhat fascinating. Everyone dresses up very well and barely so much as coughs during the performance. (Imagine a rock band demanding that kind of respect!) I'm never sure what other people think about a young, longhaired (post-)punk coming and making postmodern social commentary, but maybe if the orchestra can go out on a limb and do The Rite of Spring, I don't stick out too much.

Score: B

Thanks again to Eddie and Chris.

[Edit 11/22/08: Here is the permanent link to Eddie's main post on the SLSO blog (hilariously titled after a panel in Chris' comic), here is a link to another review of the show by Jen from the Euclid Records blog, and here is a link to a related post on Confluence City.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

My Brightest Diamond / Clare and the Reasons - Live 2008.11.11

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a band that I knew nearly nothing about – and I am pleased to say I rather enjoyed the performance. I went at the suggestion and accompaniment of a good friend and I was not let down. It’s just a pity that there wasn’t a big crowd (maybe 50-75 people), but I suppose the venue wouldn’t fit too many more than that anyway.

Artist: My Brightest Diamond
Venue: Cicero’s
Location: University City, Missouri
Date: November 11, 2008
Opening Act: Clare and the Reasons

Setlist:
01. Golden Star
02. If I Were Queen
03. Apples
04. To Pluto’s Moon
05. Disappear
06. Dragonfly
07. From the Top of the World
08. Black and Costaud
09. Ice and the Storm
10. Inside a Boy
11. Hymne a l’Amour (Édith Piaf cover)
12. Gentlest Gentleman

Review:
The show was supposed to start at 9pm but of course started late. The opening act, Clare and the Reasons, came out all dressed in red (not in uniforms, just in entirely red outfits). I’m guessing by their accents, multilinguistic abilities, and comments about green cards that they are French-Canadian, but I have no proof of this. Their setup was Clare on guitar and vocals, a cellist, a violist, and a violinist/bassist/xylophonist. They did about a 40-minute set, including an imaginative cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and a hilarious song about their beat-up car. It was enjoyable and fit well with the style of the headliner.

After a long break, My Brightest Diamond finally hit the stage after 10pm. I noticed that the main bandleader/singer/guitarist Shara Worden was accompanied by the same trio of musicians as Clare – but now they were all dressed in fanciful stylized black and white outfits. Their general format is similar to what Clare and the Reasons presented, but My Brightest Diamond takes things a step further in experimentation and innovation.

Worden had three or four guitars at her disposal, in addition to a nice set of at least a dozen pedals and a few assorted other instruments. She also had a weird-looking mic that produced a Faint-style distorted output (but was only used for one song) and a drum machine of some nature that she used intermittently for some backing beats.

Worden has a fascinating guitar-playing style. I think all of her guitars were tuned to different nonstandard configurations; I suspect her main guitar was in open-D but the others are anybody’s guess. She alternated between fingerpicking and strumming, and although she usually kept to repeated patterns, those patterns were usually intricate and clever. The most interesting part was that the guitar she used for “Disappear” had an unsharpened pencil positioned under the strings next to the fretboard so that it suspended all the strings above the highest fret. She had it tuned just right so that she could pluck patterns on the open strings above the pickups to get harmonious notes, but for a few parts of the song, she plucked on the other side of the pencil (above the fretboard) to get a slightly different set of notes. I’m curious as to what sort of tuning she used for that guitar.

The interesting instrumentation didn’t stop with the guitars. “Apples” had Worden using a weird little wooden box with metal strips that she would pluck with her thumbs. She only used it to make one or two repeated melodies, but it generated a quite unique sound. [Edit 2014.06.09: This is known as a kalimba or thumb piano.] “To Pluto’s Moon” featured a plastic tube that, when spun around, generated different high-pitched tones. These were used again by the other musicians during one of Worden’s stories, which she told a couple of during the night. One explained the opera experience that inspired “Black and Costaud” while another summarized a book about a boy and a horse named Diamond that provided the source of “From the Top of the World”. Worden implied that the name of her band is derived from the story.

Between “To Pluto’s Moon” and “Disappear”, Worden stepped back for a minute to allow the violinist/bassist to do a little magic show. There wasn’t really an explanation, but it added the feeling that the concert was more than just a band playing songs of their latest record. The feel of the music is too much of a blend of classical and pop elements with a healthy dose of the avant-garde to feel like a normal rock show. The volume level was kept at a tolerable level, and the audience remained fairly well-focused and appreciative. The way Worden talked about her songs and chatted with her bandmates kept the mood intimate and slightly unusual.

As things drew to a close, the out-of-the-ordinariness came to a climax. During a cover of “Hymne a l’Amour” (available on the “From the Top of the World” EP), Worden sang accompanied only by her guitar while the other musicians set up a puppet show off to the side on a table that remained otherwise unused. Because the stage isn’t set very high, they asked those of us in the front rows to crouch down so the back could see.

After that, the band ran off-stage, but they barely even got into the green room before turning around and jumping right back on for what I suppose could be considered an encore. Worden picked up a ukulele while the other musicians, joined now by Clare (still in red), huddled around microphones to provide backing vocals for “Gentlest Gentleman” (available only as an iTunes bonus track to her second and latest album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth), which they encouraged the audience to help out with.

Although My Brightest Diamond only played twelve songs and were on stage for just about an hour, it didn’t feel like a short performance (and for ten dollars, who could complain?). They kept things interesting with their assorted interludes, sideshows, and instruments, and the audience was dedicated and absorbed by the performance. Their version of what most critics call chamber pop is precise and well-thought out, but it is brought to a different level with Worden’s multifaceted, wide-ranged vocals and innovative guitar work. If she keeps making music this interesting, I suspect she will be met by larger crowds the next time she tours.

To see Worden’s eccentric haircut, her weird box used on “Apples”, and two of the same songs she performed at this show, check out her performance on Pitchfork.tv’s “Don’t Look Down”.

Score: B+
[Retrospective Score for Clare and the Reasons: B]

Much thanks to Josh Potter, who provided my introduction to the band, my ticket, and the setlist. I couldn’t have asked for more.