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BENT NIGHTS Sugarland; Smashing Pumpkins; Ben Folds, Cake and Tall Heights
by Vern Hester

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Nostalgia, reunions and smart asses...

Its late summer and painfully clear that much-hyped rock-concert reunions and nostalgia are the only safe strategies for putting butts in stadium seats. Now that the massive festivals have come and gone in Chicago, ancient arena fillers by the likes of Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Deep Purple and ELO have been keeping coffers full while Billy Joel, The B-52s and Culture Club are warming up for shows in the coming weeks. Here are three recent reunion shows I caught in the last two weeks.

Vocalist Jennifer Nettles and guitarist Kristian Bush haven't played together as Sugarland in five years, but with the recent release of Bigger ( on Big Machine Records ) they had an excuse to hit the road and stop at Ravinia for a sold-out show Aug. 23. Granted, Nettles was in fine shape vocally and she and Bush doled out the hits with a vengeance ( "All I Want to Do," "It Happens," "Stuck Like Glue," "Want To" ), but the show seemed to lean toward professionalism over passion. ( On that count, opener Frankie Ballard upstaged them. )

Then there were those head-scratching decisions that almost derailed the show. That sample of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" at the end of "Already Gone" seemed highly at odds with Sugarland's slick approach, and that cringe-inducing medley of Black soul was positively weird. ( "We Want the Funk" by Parliament? "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson? ) One component that I found distracting was Nettle's outfit—knee high boots, a one-piece bathing suit, a floor-length sleeved red coat, gold braids and gold mascara. Somebody needs to tell her she looked like a backwoods madam on her way to Mardis Gras.

There was no other reason besides goodwill for ex-Lake View resident and noted man-bitch Billy Corgan to bring his group Smashing Pumpkins to The United Center on Aug. 13 for a two-night stand on the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour. No new record to hype, no embarrassing lack of cash in the till—only a sincere wish to make the dreams of hardcore fans come true. Granted, it really was not a full reunion since bassist D'arcy Wretzky was excluded ( Corgan booted her before the tour got under way ), but this show was aimed so intensely at pleasing the thousands in attendance that one couldn't quibble.

Corgan opened the show with a solo acoustic version of "Disarm," with the band ( among them guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin ) joining him for a precise reading of 30 Pumpkins' songs and two covers. The show also featured an assortment of projections ( including a vaudeville barker who did the talking while Corgan, aside from song lyrics, kept his mouth shut ) but, as someone who never liked this band, I have to say that I loved every minute and it was great to hear these songs in this setting. "Try Try Try," "Stand Inside You," "1979," "Rocket," "Zero," "Mayonaise," "Baby Mine," and covers of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" sounded rich and engaging in the usually hollow sounding United Center.

Rather unsurprisingly the most entertaining and best defense I can make for reunion concerts is the unspectacular pairing of Ben Folds with Cake. With an assist from opener Tall Heights, Folds plopped down in front of his piano to romp through a set sprinkled with songs from his group Ben Folds 5 ( "Battle of Who Could Care Less," "Do it Anyway" ) as well as his solo ventures ( "Rockin' in the Suburbs" ). It was a pretty frolicsome performance and his engagement and snark gave the show a refreshing arc. Even when he deliberately got goofy ( his instrumental for a proposed TV show called The Mean Streets of Highland Park ), he managed to stay serious enough to give harder rockers a theatrical edge ( "You Don't Know Me," "Zak and Sara" ).

The one time I saw Cake was when the band's first single, "Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle," was all over the radio and it played the 7-11 parking lot on Roscoe and Halsted during Market Days in 1995. What made that song memorable was vocalist/guitarist John McCrea's deadpan humor and, amusingly enough, with Vince DiFiore, Greg Brown, Frank French and Gabe Nelson at his side, he's made a career of it.

For their gig at Ravinia, Cake did the unexpected by not playing the radio hits ( "The Distance" and "Rock and Roll Lifestyle" were nowhere to be heard ) while focusing on forgotten treasures. After counting a total of five Mexican-Americans in the audience, McCrea dedicated the mournful break-up song "Mexico" to them and swiftly quipped at the close of the song, "Maybe that song is about immigration..." McCrea's reading of "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" was so dry and achingly morose that it was intentionally funny, but the closing "Never There" managed to be a hilarious, ironic, hip-shaking delight.

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