Billy Corgan at the Vic
by Mark Guarino
Billy Corgan’s vision of the future looked sanitized and digitized at the Vic Tuesday. At the first of two sold-out nights, Corgan and his three-member band stood inside a sleek, white chamber, walled in by large panels that flashed intriguing geometric patterns, creating the effect the music was traveling through space and time.
The bright lights are a far cry from the days when Corgan fronted the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the most successful rock bands of the ‘90s, and Zwan, a guitar-powered supergroup that burned out after one album. With both of those bands, Corgan preferred dark themes, dense piles of guitars and big-hearted melodies that could climb mountains.
But touring with his first solo album, “The Future Embrace” (Warner Bros./Reprise), Corgan has trimmed off the fat. He alone played guitar while Brian Liesegang and Linda Strawberry stood behind synthesizers and manipulated computer programs and Matt Walker handled drum machines and occasionally hit electronic drum pads. It was indeed a visionary future, but one that was also tied to the past: the house music heyday of ‘80s Chicago and the romantic synth pop of British bands New Order and Depeche Mode.
Corgan, 38, is a child of both. As lyrically uplifting his new songs were, they played against the cold sheen of the music and its persistent booming beats. Through his guitar, Corgan followed the liquid grooves and they were often elastic together. He would occasionally break out on long solo tangent, submerged with distorted effects. On the “To Love Somebody,” a Bee Gees cover, his solo was majestically orchestrated but, in keeping with the backdrop of the music, precise and controlled.
The 16-song, 80-minute show was heavy on ballads, tending to stay within the same limited range. Corgan’s distinctive vocals couldn’t help separate them either, as they were often lost amid the music’s heavy machinery.
But Corgan reached a mark that’s rare for someone who sits comfortably with millions of album sales behind him. He left no room on the setlist for his past. Instead, the music achieved a grandeur that sounded harsh and romantic simultaneously, all without borrowing the conventions that worked with his previous bands.
His cover choices included “I’m a King Bee,” written by Louisiana bluesman Slim Harpo and “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” by Chicago’s Howlin’ Wolf. Both were recognizable only through their lyrics. The former was transformed into electro-punk (including a guitar solo briefly teasing with a snippet of the Pumpkins hit “Today”). On the latter, Corgan turned it into a duet between the snarling squalls from his guitar and the bulked-up mechanical beats.
With his recent announcement that he plans to reunite the Pumpkins, this solo turn may just be a futuristic rest stop on the way to the past. But for the time being, the present is much preferred.