Billy Corgan at the Metro, April 2004

Daily Herald Music Critic

Billy Corgan has been a rock star, an alternative rock icon and unabashed Cubs fan.

But never a folkie.

But for almost two hours Monday night, he got his chance. At a sold-out Metro, Corgan played his first-ever solo acoustic show, debuting a song cycle titled “Chicago” that used the blues to reference snapshots of the city’s past as starting points for songs of wounded love.

The new songs will appear on a live DVD of the show, which was a one-night-only affair. Late into the evening, Corgan reported he was working on a forthcoming rock record and former Smashing Pumpkins/Zwans drummer Jimmy Chamberlin (who watched from the balcony) was at work on his own solo record, too.

“Jimmy and I will rock again together. I don’t know when that day will come but it will come,” he said.

You can take the rock start out of the rock band, light some candles and stick an acoustic guitar in his hand, but none of that is necessarily enough to translate into intimacy. Because of either his inexperience as an acoustic performer or a refusal to let the stripped setting truly feel naked, Corgan’s 16-son show suffered the similar burdens of rock regalia.

Rather than a stripped-down setting, he sat on a theater set designed to look like a living room, complete with floor lamps, easy chair, side table, birdcage and stars twinkling in the background. Corgan did not plow forward and let the songs do the talking, but instead attempted to explain each one beforehand, even providing a lyric booklet to fans as they entered the club.

The more underwhelming songs sounded fragmented, infused with forced metaphors. Native American wind instrumentalist Robert Mirabul put in a guest appearance on “Bobby Franks,” setting a meditative mood that felt strained for profundity.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago’s North-South baseball rivalry, the state’s prairie landscape and the famed White City exhibition were backdrops. But as the night wore on, even Corgan seemed tired of the lecture hall format, which encouraged fans to constantly disrupt the pace.

The show was not without moments of stunning immediacy. The closest was “Riverview,” a creeping nocturnal blues song that imagined the long forgotten North Side amusement park as a spooky late-night meeting spot.

There was a cover, too – Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues.” The overt sexual metaphors got laughs while still creating a steady dose of discomfort, proof that danger lurked long before rock was king.

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