Touring in support of his first solo album in nearly fifteen years, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha returned home to Chicago Tuesday for a sold out show at Schubas...
It's entirely too easy to forget about James Iha as Billy Corgan soldiers on in 2012 with a new Smashing Pumpkins lineup, seemingly content to belittle the contributions of his former bandmates as often as he can. But since his last solo album in 1998 (Let it Come Down), the Elk Grove native has remained quite busy. He started his own label, produced an array of artists at his studio, played guitar in the power-pop supergroup Tinted Windows (alongside Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos, Hanson's Taylor Hanson and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne), has been a member of A Perfect Circle since 2003 and even worked with seventies schlockmeisters America in 2006.
Where the 1998 album was softer and more acoustic based, Look to the Sky is faster and louder. Admirably, the new album doesn't hide from the fact that Iha long served as a member of one of the biggest alternative bands of the nineties. Instead, it builds upon that history flourishing those familiar sounds with electronic elements, managing to keep the album contemporary instead of merely rendering it a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Iha's singing voice has never been the strongest and these songs are structured with that in mind, never forcing him to try and overdo it. They're solid songs that stand on their own. Over the course of sixty minutes Tuesday night at Schubas, Iha delivered a lively set that showcased his knack for crafting catchy hooks. Fronting a tight, five-piece band, he was ably backed on bass by Local H's Scott Lucas. Lucas's Chicago based side-project Scott Lucas & The Married Men opened the show and several of the Married Men joined Lucas in backing Iha at Schubas (drummer Randy Payne and keyboard player Jason Batchko). Brooklyn based guitarist Steve Schiltz (Longwave) rounded out the quintet.
What struck me immediately was actually the lack of lead guitar being played by Iha. For the majority of the show, Iha played rhythm on acoustic guitar, content to let Schiltz do the heavy lifting electric. But Schiltz was more than capable of doing just that. His fiery solos stole the show frequently. On Iha's new album, Television's Tom Verlaine lends his spastic, totally unique style to several songs. "Till Next Tuesday" is one of them. But he wasn't missed Tuesday at Schubas as Schiltz delivered the song's jangly hook (the catchiest, closest to radio-friendly song of the night).
"Gemini," a cool, mid-tempo, indie rock gem, opened the show and was one of my favorites of the night. The band as a whole was at its best though on a drawn out cover of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" that put the keyboards up front early with Schiltz's appropriately distorted solo front and center later on. "New Year's Day" followed and it showcased the band at it's fastest. Drenched in new wave influences and electronic elements, the song reminded me of Modern English's "Melt With You" and featured prominent backing vocals from Lucas.
"We're just gonna avoid all encores. There. We just walked off. That was great. Now we're back." deadpanned a sarcastic Iha, never leaving the stage as the show headed toward the finish line. Witty in his banter throughout the evening, Iha's sense of humor was always one of his more underrated qualities when onstage with the Smashing Pumpkins. Surprising the crowd, Iha began strumming the familiar acoustic intro to one of the more beloved numbers in the Pumpkins catalog: "Mayonnaise." Schiltz soon kicked in on electric guitar and I could see Lucas at the back corner of the stage mouthing the words as Iha sang lead on the song, his quieter, lower register in stark contrast to the more identifiable higher coos and shrill screams of Billy Corgan. "Mayonnaise" was an ironic choice for Iha as Corgan closed with the song in October when the Smashing Pumpkins performed at Allstate Arena.
What I kept coming back to time and time again Tuesday night was the strength of songwriting. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Afterall, Iha is credited with co-writing some of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs ("Soma" and "Mayonnaise" from 1993's Siamese Dream album specifically).
But it was fitting when Iha ended the set with a well chosen cover: David Bowie's "Rock & Roll With Me" which was highlighted by a focused and very deliberate delivery of lyrics like "When you rock and roll with me, no one else I'd rather be / Nobody here can do it for me. I'm in tears again, when you rock 'n' roll with me."
James Iha's set Tuesday night at Schubas marked a welcome return from a strong songwriter who shouldn't be so easily forgotten.