BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE
Jimmy Chamberlin is a bona fide big-time rock drummer. Now back with the reunited Smashing Pumpkins on their Shiny And Oh So Bright tour, he’s been demonstrating how to really play to a big arena, a skill that isn’t easily gleaned from YouTube videos or even the best music schools. It just seems to come naturally to him, and that was evident from the beginning of the Pumpkins’ three-hour set last night in Oakland, California.
The set list spanned their catalog of hits, mostly from the ‘90s, with a few choice covers sprinkled in. Chamberlin’s “Arena Rock Drumming 101 Clinic” included lessons on dynamics, fill placement, picking your spots, applying jazz nuances, and even proper drumming attire.
This was particularly evident on “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” on which Chamberlin jumps into a tom-centric groove after Corgan starts the song by ominously crooning, “The world is a vampire.” It would be easy to smash the hell out of those toms considering the energy of the song and the size of the crowd, but he wisely builds momentum for the explosive choruses. His 8-bar fill leading into the bridge flowed perfectly with enough flash to keep up the energy but not take away from the song.
With frontman Billy Corgan behind him wearing a hooded cloak and dancing on a six-foot riser in front of an astral plane, Chamberlin jazzed up a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with buzzy triplets and free-flowing, lyrical drumming. He knows when to jazz, and knows when to rock, and he did both aptly in this song. To me, it was his drumming above all else that made this cover particularly special. Corgan’s vocal rendition was solid, and the guitar solos emotional, but the drumming set the mood of floating in space. Chamberlin really captured the feeling of floating above oneself and viewing one’s life from the outside, and the possibility of an existential crisis that may or may not ensue, that makes this song what it is.
The Pumpkins also covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” injecting their own ‘70s nostalgia into a setlist packed with ‘90s nostalgia for their eager fans. You might be thinking, “Stairway? Really?” But if anyone were to get away with this cover, it’s the Smashing Pumpkins. Corgan’s voice and electric piano performance at the beginning gave just enough twist to the familiar while still paying homage to the original. Chamberlin came in with the rest of the band halfway through and gave a faithful rendition. Seeing this song done so well was a good reminder of how beautiful it can be.
On “1979,” while we hear the well-known drum pattern during the instrumental intros of the verses, it is a programmed piece that isn’t played live; Chamberlin jumps in only when the lyrics begin and stays in through the choruses. His timing could not have been more spot-on, and the dynamic blend was seamless. He never got huge, because it’s not a “huge” song. In contrast to this controlled, play-to-the-song mentality, Chamberlin’s great little solo at the end of “Zero” really gave it a rock-and-roll ending and brought the house down. Dynamics make a big rock show special, and you’ve got to apply them liberally to hold an audience for three hours straight.
Chamberlin’s art deco-inspired drum kit added to a night already dripping with nostalgia. It was made specifically for this tour by Yamaha, and it fit perfectly with the stage theme and video visuals reminiscent of the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. Unlike the silent film, and fortunately for us, the drums sounds as good as they look. He’s got one big, deep mounted tom above the snare, followed by two smaller toms for fills leading into two massive floor toms. At least five crash cymbals, a giant China, one pair of hi-hats and at least one ride complete the Istanbul Agop cymbal set.
Oracle Arena, the home of the Golden State Warriors (at least for one more year), was sold out, with tens of thousands of fans cheering, singing along, and reliving their teenage or college years. Corgan praised the Warriors and “Stephon Curry” (yes, he pronounced it on and not en) for their championship teams, which, as he pointed out, he’s familiar with as a Chicagoan from the ‘90s. He then dedicated a song “to the rest of the NBA” called “Try, Try, Try.” The slow, mournful ballad gave the crowd a moment to drain or refill the liquid in their bodies. It was almost fitting that Corgan lost some steam toward the end, just like any team playing the Warriors these days.
But one has to forgive the 51-year-old, not just because he’s been a rock star for almost 30 years now but also on this particular night he was battling food poisoning. Still, he was engaging with the crowd, and, for the most part, moving around pretty well. Tapping into the crowd’s inner angsty teen, Corgan cut through the vulnerability of his songs with fierce and ballsy guitar jams so heavy and deep they turned my seat into a personal massage chair. I’m still buzzing just thinking about it. So tingly.
The 54-year-old Chamberlin showed no signs of slowing down on this tour. He is to the Smashing Pumpkins what Draymond Green is to the Warriors. Not just because he was showing off his guns all night in a sleeveless black shirt, but he’s really the heart of the band. He’s the motor, doing so much for the group without having to be flashy about it. And many of the little things he does often go unnoticed — like not playing in certain places, and giving room for the massive guitar parts to shine. It’s hard to imagine anyone even filling in for Chamberlin, let alone taking his place. With this success of this reunion tour (minus original bassist D’Arcy Wretzky) showing they still rock just as hard after 30 years, the Smashing Pumpkins deserve serious consideration for enshrinement into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.