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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Smashing Return for Pumpkins

The Troubled Band Resumes Tour in Las Vegas and Loyal Fans Are Delighted

August 29, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

LAS VEGAS — For someone often portrayed in the media as arrogant and calculating, the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan seemed unusually humble and open as he stood on stage Tuesday at the Thomas & Mack Center arena here.

"We haven't had the easiest year . . . but I don't want to talk about that," he said, shifting anxiously in the spotlight. "We just want to say . . . we appreciate your support very much. . . . I want you to know that we don't take anything for granted. We certainly don't take you for granted."

This may be the land of casinos as large as football fields and buffets that stretch a city block, but it's not one of the premier stops on the rock 'n' roll trail. Normally, Las Vegas is just the name between Salt Lake City and Sacramento on the backs of tour T-shirts.

Not so Tuesday.

By the luck of scheduling, Las Vegas became the center of the rock world as the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the defining bands in '90s rock, resumed their national tour here following a six-week break.

The traumatic interruption was caused by the July 12 heroin overdose death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, who was with the band for the tour, and the arrest of Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin on possession charges.

Shaken by the events, the Pumpkins fired Chamberlin, who reportedly had a long history of drug and alcohol addiction, and postponed several concerts while they returned home to Chicago to break in a new drummer, Matt Walker, and keyboardist, Dennis Flemion, to accompany them on the rest of the tour, which includes a series of Southern California dates in December.

Though singer-guitarist-songwriter Corgan is the creative center of the band, any change of personnel could affect the chemistry of the group on stage and cause fan disenchantment.

For the Pumpkins, this show was the first formal chance for answers to those questions--and the estimated 7,500 fans in the arena seemed delighted at being at the center of so much attention. Three local radio stations set up promotional booths on the grounds, just off the famed Strip. An MTV camera crew roamed the grounds and Rolling Stone magazine was also represented.

"This has been the biggest thing to happen since Nine Inch Nails played here last year," said Sam Frees, a disc jockey with X-treme Radio, as one station bills itself. "We were flooded with calls when the Pumpkins started postponing dates. They were worried that they might not come here--or might even break up. They're going to give them a heck of a welcome tonight."

Sure enough, Corgan and the other original Pumpkins--guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy--didn't have to wait long for an answer about crowd loyalty. As soon as the instrumental strains of the title tune from the Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" album began playing in the darkened arena, fans stood and cheered, many holding lighters in salute.

The Pumpkins came on stage with a fury, playing the aggressive rock that has made them one of the key '90s arrivals in American rock, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. As a writer, Corgan is blessed with remarkable range--able to go from songs that speak about youthful melancholy with the tenderness and beauty of a Brian Wilson ballad to songs as angry and forceful as those of a metal or industrial-rock group.

On this night, Corgan, wearing a black sweatshirt with his trademark "Zero" on the front and silver metallic pants, led the Pumpkins through almost two-dozen songs from their "Siamese Dream" and "Mellon Collie" albums. They played with the intensity of musicians exorcising their own sadness and tension.

"We'll crucify the insincere tonight," Corgan sang early in the set, during an especially moving version of "Tonight, Tonight." "We'll make things right, we'll feel it all tonight."

Unlike the rambling jams that seemed as long as rock operas during their appearances at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in June in San Francisco, the music was mostly compact and focused, with Walker and Flemion fitting in quite well. It was a warm and emotional performance that had much of the audience on its feet the entire two-plus hours.

Backstage afterward, the shaven-headed Corgan seemed relieved as he sat in the dressing room before hosting a small reception with the band. "We're surprised at how unweird it felt out there," he said. "We worried it might feel creepy or weird or some kind of deflated state, but it doesn't feel like that at all."

Corgan and the band had been so nervous going out with the new lineup that they scheduled a warmup club date in Chicago last Friday.

"There's a big difference between rehearsing with a band and going on stage and you never know if someone is going to tweak out. . . . People under pressure can do strange things," he said.

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