CHICAGO -- Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan fulfilled a boyhood dream Saturday night when he took the stage with the band he has long raved about: Cheap Trick.
Dressed like Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, in a baseball cap with brim up-turned, Corgan took up one of Nielsen's checkerboard guitars and proceeded to jam on "Mandocello" and "Just Got Back." All the while, he mimicked Nielsen's moves to everyone's amusement: leaping, flicking guitar picks and all. "He's kind-of like my young bastard son," Nielsen said.
Meanwhile, Pumpkins touring drummer Kenny Aronoff joined in on maracas for "You're All Talk," and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky sang backing vocals, in all her cat-like splendor, on "If You Want My Love." "This was the best birthday present ever," said Wretzky, who turned 30 the day before.
But all of that came later. The night began with an air of surprise wafting through Chicago's Metro club that had less to do with the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins were opening for Cheap Trick -- which had been a widely publicized "secret" for days -- than with the wonder of what the Pumpkins would bring to the stage.
With the Pumpkins prepping to launch a European tour in support of their fourth album, Adore (June 2), in just weeks, the gig conjured several questions for fans. Foremost in many folks' minds was what would the new material sound like? Just as compelling, however, was the question of how former John Mellencamp drummer Aronoff would mesh with the Pumpkins' alt-rock aesthetic in his first performance with the group since joining the band as a touring member last month.
Those who raised their eyebrows at reports that Adore is an electronica-laden exploration needn't worry that Corgan and company have abandoned their sweeping, modern rock epics. Saturday's eight-song, 55-minute set was filled with clamorous guitar, from the climactic soundscape of "Tear" to "Daphne Descends"' trippy spaciness to the rhythmic rock of the album's first single, "Ava Adore."
As for Aronoff, the man who's gigged with such traditional rockers as Mellencamp, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and John Fogerty, he proved that he knows damn well how to beat it with the young turks. Throughout the set, Aronoff did nothing short of kick out the jams.
The band took the stage promptly at 7:30 and laid into an eight-minute run through Adore's resigned-sounding opener, "To Sheila." The career Pumpkins -- singer/guitarist Corgan, bassist Wretzky and guitar player James Iha -- were clad head-to-toe in black. Wretzky, in fact, looked like a Marilyn Manson refugee, sporting a head-band with black cat ears, a see-through mesh top, gray eye shadow and black lipstick. Aronoff, to the contrary, looked as if he were pulling double-duty with U2 in his tight, shoulder-striped T-shirt and yellow, wrap-around fly shades.
Despite the fact that Aronoff is more than a dozen years Corgan's senior, the band clearly had fun teasing him as the low-man on the Pumpkins totem pole. Before beginning the quiet "Once Upon A Time," Corgan stopped and mock-chastised the drummer, smiling as he told the audience, "You can tell he's the new drummer." The bald singer then turned to Aronoff and said, "I know with Mellencamp you may play while he's talking, but when we're talking, you don't play underneath!"
The skinsman was indeed a highlight of the show, appearing genuinely charged by his bandmates' challenges and, in turn, expertly endowing Adore's material with the power and drama it demands. Rocco Egizio and Mike Laudicina, both of Illinois, agreed that Corgan should hire him full-time. "He should keep Aronoff and learn to have as much fun as he is up there," Egizio said.
Much of that fun spilled over into the audience, who grooved enthusiastically throughout the show, be it to the techo-tinged rock of "Daphne Descends" (featuring soaring, screeching guitar lines from Iha) or the group's self-indulgent and Black Sabbathesque take on Joy Division's "Transmission."
Although the crowd was composed primarily of Cheap Trick fans (who sold the show out weeks before the Pumpkins' slot was leaked), the modern-rock megastars won them over early with "Tear," which opened with an a cappella intro from Corgan. "The lights came on fast, lost in motorcrash," he sang, "Gone in a flash unreal, but you knew all along/ You laugh the light, I sing the songs to watch you numb." Eventually the song broke away into a military cadence of single notes from Iha and Corgan, before blasting into an atmospheric wash of cymbals from Aronoff.
Still, the sure crowd-pleaser was "Ava Adore," which last week made its way to some radio stations and has since turned up as an MP3 audio file on several unofficial Pumpkins websites. Aronoff turned the studio version's machine-made beat into an organic thud as Corgan twisted his face and sneered the schizoid opening: "It's you that I adore/ You'll always be my whore/ You'll be a mother to my child/ and a child to my heart."
Making the transition from the high-brow Pumpkins to party-hearty Cheap Trick was like a car jacking its gears from second to fifth. No matter that the odd juxtaposition was tantamount to leaving the vehicle's drive train on the highway -- the crowd at the Metro was more than happy to party around the wreckage.
Cheap Trick are an amalgam of everything that has ever been fun in rock -- a collection of stereotypes, really: legs spread, knees bent power chords; riff-laden, cymbal-rolling song finishes; guitar flourishes punctuated with leaps. It's that very spirit that prompted the band to book a four-night stand at the Metro, with each night focusing on a particular Trick album.
This is also a band with a charming dedication to its fans, who have responded more than in kind. Richard Averdahl, for instance, flew in for the show from Sweden, where Cheap Trick haven't played since 1979. Mari Iwasa and Uyoy Masada, both of whom attended the 1978 Japanese show that spawned the multi-platinum Live At Budokan, were at all four shows in Chicago. But the truly remarkable thing was that Nielsen knew all this and could point these fans out in the crowd.
Of course, Cheap Trick didn't disappoint on the music end, either, especially when it came to one of their biggest fans, Corgan. By the time the band launched into "I Want You To Want Me" from Saturday's featured album, In Color, Corgan was grinning from ear to ear in the balcony, throwing his fists in the air and singing along in a manner that can only be described as gleeful.
Pumpkins aside, the show was still a special one for the Trickster fans. Because Cheap Trick were showcasing one particular album, they were challenged to play songs that they had, in some cases, never performed live. They were up to the task.
"They have matured a lot as a band, and I've matured as well," Budokan-vet Masada said.
"I think we played this stuff better than we did originally," Nielsen announced.