Pop music review: Smashing Pumpkins at the Sunset Strip Music Festival
Somewhere near the middle of Smashing Pumpkins’ headlining set Saturday night at the Sunset Strip Music Festival, Billy Corgan recited a long list of the Los Angeles musicians who’d “made [him] want to be a big rock star.” That the group included the Doors, Love and the Electric Prunes came as no surprise: Traces of those bands’ expansive sonics and flowery philosophizing course throughout Smashing Pumpkins’ work, from its 1991 debut, “Gish,” to the new songs Corgan began releasing for free online late last year.
A handful of unlikelier names cropped up as well, such as Guns N’ Roses, Ratt and Mötley Crüe — acts whose commercial instincts and lack of self-reproach once seemed at odds with Corgan’s tortured-artist vision. At first, you wondered whether the frontman was playing nice for the occasion, an annual three-day celebration of West Hollywood’s vaunted (if perhaps declining) musical tradition. Yet Saturday’s concert actually suggested that after several years of combative relations with the band’s fan base, Corgan has happily reclaimed his role as crowd-pleasing hitmaker. For the moment, at least, “big rock star” does not appear to be an ironic guise.
Backed by three able stand-ins for his original bandmates, Corgan alternated fresh tunes with old favorites during the 90-minute show, which Smashing Pumpkins performed on an outdoor stage near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive. (Sunset was closed to traffic Saturday between Doheny and San Vicente Boulevard.) “Ava Adore” and “Cherub Rock” were energetic and full of heavy-metal muscle, while “1979" sounded dreamier than it has on past Pumpkins tours. “Hummer,” from the group’s 1993 breakthrough “Siamese Dream,” emphasized the sumptuously lyrical quality of Corgan’s guitar playing.
Some of the new material grew baggy with neo-psychedelic excess: “A Song for a Son,” for instance, could’ve used less of Jim Morrison’s example and more of Axl Rose’s. And no matter how much Corgan admires the skills of his current drummer, Mike Byrne, there was little need for Byrne’s momentum-killing solo. Even then, though, Smashing Pumpkins proved surprisingly sympathetic to the Sunset Strip’s core values; this was arty introversion with a taste for unembarrassed flash.
Saturday’s festival bill also included a performance by Slash, the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist who earlier this year released a self-titled album featuring collaborations with singers such as Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock and Chris Cornell. Here he was joined by Myles Kennedy on vocals, and minus the guest-star gambit, such songs as “By the Sword” and “Ghost” felt pretty unremarkable.
During his encore, Slash invited Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas onstage for a coolly received rendition of the album’s “Beautiful Dangerous.” Then, the guitarist revved up the unmistakable riff from Heart’s “Barracuda,” which Fergie proceeded to sing with an abundance of rock-chick fortitude. At the end of the song, she even threw in a series of perfectly executed cartwheels, winning over with old-fashioned spectacle a crowd predisposed to view her as a pop-scene interloper.
Axl himself might have approved.