‘Lollapalooza’: A Smashing Start : Smashing Pumpkins anchors the bill of alternative rockers that pleased, puzzled and ‘Paloozed a hot Vegas crowd on the opening stop of the 31-city tour. : THE SHOW
For the first time in its four-year history, this summer’s “Lollapalooza” tour is saving its best for last.
After seeing support bands overshadow the headliners in past extravaganzas, the top-billed Smashing Pumpkins defied the odds here Thursday with an assurance and drama that even Vegas casino high-rollers would admire.
In the opening stop of a 31-city tour that reaches Southern California in September, the Pumpkins--led by singer-guitarist Billy Corgan--played with a spellbinding urgency that far surpassed everything else on the nine-hour bill.
The Pumpkins’ accomplishment was all the more compelling because the Chicago quartet--whose expressions of youthful melancholia and desire combine beauty and force with a sometimes “Layla"-like grace and reach--wasn’t just competing against seven other acts at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl stadium. It also competed against the ghost of Nirvana.
The hardest challenge facing any concert tour is the idea of “what might have been.”
And that challenge hovered over “Lollapalooza ’94" because Nirvana, the most-acclaimed rock group of the ‘90s, had been scheduled to headline the annual summer showcase of alternative rock.
Smashing Pumpkins, one of Nirvana’s two or three chief rivals, was to have been the support band that preceded it on stage each night.
But Cobain’s suicide in April eliminated the chance to see how these two great young bands would respond to playing back-to-back--whether the competition would push both to new heights.
Without Nirvana, the prospects for “Lollapalooza ’94" went from a historic matchup to simply a solid lineup--one that also ranged from rap ‘n’ rollers the Beastie Boys to funk legend George Clinton.
Cobain’s loss was felt at the box office and in the audience.
Sales have been robust on most “Lollapalooza ’94" stops around the country, including Cal State Dominguez Hills’ Festival Field, where the tour comes Sept. 4 and 5.
But Thursday was “Lollapalooza’s” first trip to this desert city and the package apparently needed a stronger name--a Nirvana or Pearl Jam--to lure fans to an outdoor show in the blistering heat.
Fewer than half of the available 22,000 tickets were sold in advance and the walk-up Thursday appeared slight. Nirvana would have meant an extra 6,000 sales, one insider speculated.
Though none of the musicians mentioned Cobain on stage, it was on the minds of some backstage and some members of the audience.
Only 30 minutes after the stadium gates were opened at 11 a.m., a song was dedicated to Cobain by a performer in the “open mike” tent set aside for budding spoken-word artists and acoustic songwriters.
“I am a pied piper,” Andy Hall, 21, sang, delivering a cynical tale about pop stardom.
Asked afterward if he thought Cobain’s death took some of the wind out of the concert, he said, “Sure, we still feel his loss. You don’t get over something like that quickly.”
Another fan in the tent agreed: “He’ll be remembered the same way Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding are remembered.”
All this mourning for Cobain put added pressure Thursday on the Smashing Pumpkins, who moved into the headline slot after Nirvana dropped off.
Would some underdog emerge from the pack to overshadow the Pumpkins--the way Nine Inch Nails did in 1991 (upstaging Jane’s Addiction), Ministry in 1992 (over the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Rage Against the Machine last year (over Alice in Chains and Primus)?
The music on the main stage began at 1 p.m. with the Boredoms, a band from Japan that uses aggressive vocal punctuation as a distinguishing element. That experimental edge asks a lot of an audience--more than the sun-drenched fans were willing to give on a day when the temperature on the artificial turf in front of the stage was estimated at 110 degrees.
For much of the early hours of the festival, fans seemed more concerned with putting on sunscreen and walking through the cooling Mist Tents than watching bands or exploring the dazzling array of high-tech, interactive devices on display near the parking lot.
L7, the Los Angeles quartet, played its likable brand of straight-ahead rock, but was largely anonymous in the stadium setting. The Breeders, a more original and inviting foursome, also had trouble establishing a rapport.
A Tribe Called Quest, pioneers of the growing jazz-rap fusion, delivered a respectable set, though it too was relatively faceless.
No way to miss George Clinton and his crew, who gave a lively crash course in funk dynamics and costuming (one male guitarist wore a wedding dress, while a second wore only a large diaper).
The Beastie Boys, who preceded the Pumpkins on stage, unleashed a glorious assault built around beats that hit fast and hard, backed by disarming street-wise raps that keep pace quite remarkably.
Yet the three Beasties still haven’t developed much of a stage presence, except for the bouncing-ball energy associated with rap since the early days of Run-DMC.
Of all the support acts, however, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds emerged with the most riveting performance because Australian native Cave’s Southern Gothic rock vision offered the day’s most radical twist.
Though Cave has been a critical favorite for years, he still seemed largely a stranger to most of the young audience. Fans gazed uncertainly at the fire and brimstone of his stark and flailing manner.
There was no such uncertainty when the Pumpkins took the stage around 9 p.m. As the crowd on the field surged forward, Corgan stepped confidently to the microphone and played with the obsession and command of rock’s most charismatic stars.
Last year at the Palladium in Hollywood, Corgan was clearly a major talent, but there was a hesitancy in his manner--as if he was either not secure about his own skills or uncertain about his emerging leadership role in rock.
No such doubts now.
For all the talk about the “Lollapalooza” concept being more important to rock audiences than the individual bands on the bill, it is the magic of a great presentation that you remember most each summer.
This summer, the Pumpkins should fuel those memories.