It's a summer for hyped '90s reunions. Pavement was decent at the Pitchfork fest. Next week we'll be suffering through the wholly unnecessary reunion of Soundgarden at Lollapalooza. But will we ever see the Smashing Pumpkins whole again?
Asking those four to reunite is likely as hopeless as expecting the Smiths to put aside all their litigation and bile for one more clunky run through "Reel Around the Fountain." But watching lil' Billy Corgan and his new mates tear through its catalog Tuesday night in a last-minute benefit show made a decent case for a trumpeted return of the rage and the rat cage.
The focus wasn't supposed to be on the band, not directly. This was a benefit show for a great cause. Proceeds from the concert's raffled tickets support the Matthew Leone Fund, part of the nonprofit Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which provides financial assistance to musicians facing illness or disability.
Leone is the bassist for local band Madina Lake. On June 29, he stopped to help a woman being attacked in an alleged domestic violence situation, and in so doing Leone was allegedly beaten by the woman's attacker. Leone underwent emergency brain surgery, in which a third of his skull was removed to alleviate swelling. He's currently stable, and the suspect in the attack is awaiting a court hearing. Like many working musicians, Leone is without insurance to cover his medical costs.
The event even attracted the attention of Gov. Pat Quinn, who appeared before the Pumpkins set to read a proclamation, naming Tuesday as Matthew Leone Day in the state of Illinois and calling Leone "a true American hero." He also presented a check to the fund.
Matthew's twin brother, Nathan, was on hand to accept the accolades. The Leone parents were in the balcony. "There are absolutely not enough words in the English language, or any language, to express our gratitude for this and everything you've done," Nathan told the sold-out crowd. "The statement you've all made against domestic violence and violence in general will change the world for the better." Metro owner Joe Shanahan choked up.
Then the Smashing Pumpkins returned to the Metro stage -- for the first time since the original quartet said goodbye here in 2000.
It sure ain't the same band, literally and figuratively. Only Corgan remains, surrounded by three young pups. New guitarist Jeff Schroeder didn't step up and demand anyone's attention, though he has a prickly way of crawling over and around the melody, adding superfluous but sweetly unsettling sounds (think Robert Quine's guitar parts on Matthew Sweet's "Altered Beast"). Bassist Nicole Fiorentino is a fembot clipped directly from a Robert Palmer video, all legs and blank expression, but she ably holds down the band's big bottom end. Drummer Mike Byrne, 20, replaced the only remaining original member, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, late last year, and he punished the skins accordingly, acquitting himself in a brief drum solo at the tortured end of "United States."
Competency they have, and that's fine for their continuing journey through clubland, passing out in Tampa and apologizing to New York City. But watching Corgan -- who's still sometimes interesting to watch -- rant and vent and rave and rage in 2010, a year that thus far craves more outlets for ranting and venting and such, instills a hunger for some good ol' mid-'90s grind. Imagine someone throwing a pot of money at the four original Pumpkins for a one-off, with a big stage production and an audience in costumes. Lady Gaga would take notes. Soundgarden would give up. All those vampiric lyrics -- "True Blood" would be a sponsor. It would be useless, self-indulgent and beautiful, which pretty much sums up the band's legacy.
Tuesday, though, there was a bit of beauty before the inevitable self-indulgence. Corgan's still in a striped shirt that doesn't really fit, still standing on tippy-toe to squawk into the microphone. He'd sometimes take a drink of water, then spit a little onto the floor. He let the crowd sing most of "Today." He played with his teeth during "Ava Adore" and finished his first act by revolting against "United States," rubbing his guitar strings on his monitors for maximum feedback, knocking mike stands over, all the while controlling his newbies with the flick of a finger in the air.
If he'd left that on the stage and walked off, we'd still be talking about this show 10 years from now. But of course it went on. "Many more to come," he threatened in "A Song for a Son." The band debuted an unspectacular ballad, "Blessed Mother," with an aboriginal rhythm and an easygoing, almost Robbie Robertson mosey. By midnight, they'd hit all the highlights -- "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Tonight, Tonight," a really great "Owata" -- and an encore of "1979" (with opening band Kill Hannah and various Metro staffers on stage) and "Gossamer."
But this was about Leone, after all, and it looks like he got some deserved help. In addition to the raffle-ticket crowd, various Pumpkins items were auctioned -- $1,600 for a set of collectible LPs, $2,500 for a signed poster, $4,000 for a backstage meet-and-greet with Corgan and, between encores, one of the guitars Corgan played was liberated for $10,000.
But this is America. If we have that kind of money for good causes, I know we have it for silly ones, too. Someone please start the Grant Park reunion fund and find D'arcy.
UPDATE: In a statement released Thursday, the Pumpkins' PR folks say more than $80,000 was raised for the Leone fund.