Most things in life are uncertain, except this one thing: The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park has never had a group of pro wrestlers on its stage.
We can agree on that. Except Saturday night, the earth moved and there they were — about 30 members of Resistance Pro, the pro wrestling promoter co-owned by rock star Billy Corgan, singing, in very much the spirit of “We Are the World,” his Zwan song, “Of a Broken Heart.” Many wore leotards and spandex, bare chests were numerous, and one wrestler shook his “Shake It” workout device to the beat. Yes, this happened.
Corgan, who now calls Highland Park home, ended his two-hour, 40-minute Ravinia debut Saturday by plugging an upcoming date by his wrestling organization, but he began in another unusual setting: alone. This was billed as a special evening with the Smashing Pumpkins auteur and indeed it was: While there were a few familiar songs, the set mainly operated as a way for Corgan to filter his music in a way that mega-stardom did not allow in the past: Solo piano and guitar, acoustic guitar duets, and a small band ensemble performing rarities, unreleased material, and a cover or two. They served to show he is a star who has far more to offer than what the public knows him for best.
The stage backdrop was a wall of eight cabinets of revealing machinery: dials, lights, sensors, and cables that crisscrossed into various outlets. It implied some serious metal machine music was on the docket, but not much was had. Instead, Corgan dedicated the first half of his set to quieter fare on solo guitar and piano, soon accompanied by current Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder. The songs revealed that, despite the gothic doom associated with the Pumpkins through their visuals, many of the songs themselves — “Let Me Give the World to You” and “To Forgive” in particular — are, at their core, intimately wrapped in sweet romance.
Schroeder was a linchpin for the set, switching between guitar, a Mellotron, and bass. As his role emerged to become more prominent, the music became fleshier, with programmed samples and beats. A mid-set suite of songs from the Smashing Pumpkins opus “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” became the night’s main course. The beautiful melodies of those songs, and the personal connection that continues to be conveyed through his nuanced vocals, showed their continued durability. There was also a new addition: “Methusela,” an unreleased song Corgan wrote about his father and recorded for the album but never released. “Wise old man/wise young fool,” he sang, showing the fertile creative magic of that time period.
Soon after that, Corgan abandoned his guitar and prowled the stage with only a microphone. With the aide of Schroeder, and eventually drummer Matt Walker, a Smashing Pumpkins concert suddenly broke out. “The Crying Tree of Mercury” and “Ava Adore” put Corgan in his true element, making grand gestures and easily stirring the crowd to its feet. There was also a new song, “Burnt Orange Black,” that Corgan pounced upon with his own guitar, soloing throughout. He also finally turned to those cabinets, tweaking a series of digital swooshes and beeps before entering “The World’s Fair,” a dense opus from an unreleased Chicago-related song cycle.
Then came the crash. The band expanded more with the entrance of vocalists Bryan Harding and Amalie Bruun of the Brooklyn band Ex Cops and singer Sierra Swan. Both have albums he produced this year but none of these obviously under-rehearsed singers knew what they were singing. Cues were constantly missed, words mumbled, and Harding in particular looked like he was still waking up. Despite the flaws of this group, the ensemble suggested that Corgan’s softer, more folk-oriented material would flourish in a different kind of band other than the Pumpkins. The interlude was saved by Bruun, who sang “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” a fluke hit by 1960s bubblegum band the Poppy Family.
Indeed, which way Billy? As this night of many forks suggested, any path looks fruitful.
Mark Guarino is the Sun-Times music writer.
The Killing moon
Turn Your Way
As Time Draws Near
For Your Love
The Rose March
Let Me Give the World to You
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Now (And Then)
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning
The Crying Tree of Mercury
Stand Inside Your Love
Which Way You Goin’ Billy?
Burnt Orange Black
The World’s Fair
Of a Broken Heart