Ravinia might not be the most incongruous place Billy Corgan has ever played. That gig would most likely be the appearance of the Smashing Pumpkins' leader on the final taping of "Bozo's Circus" in 2001, when he performed Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" for the benefit of anyone who ever watched WGN-TV Channel 9's classic kid show.
Yet Ravinia has to be right up there when Corgan makes his debut at the summer concert venue Saturday with a solo acoustic performance, especially as he readily acknowledges he'll be playing before the "wine-and-cheese crowd."
Billy CorganWith Katie Cole
When: Gates open at 5 p.m.; show starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 30
Where: In the Pavilion at Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, (847) 266-5100
Tickets: $60/$80 for reserved seats; $38 lawn. See ravinia.org.
"A few years ago, when they first approached me, I thought, 'Oh my god, why would they want me there?'" said Corgan, who grew up in Glendale Heights. Yet he insisted it now made a certain sort of sense.
"I live close to Ravinia," he said, as well as having opened a high-end tea shop, Madame ZuZu's, nearby in Highland Park. "They're all sorts of people coming there now."
Yet it does pose certain problems for someone better known for playing shows awash in guitar feedback and shouted distortion at the Metro in Chicago, dressed all in black with "Beelzebub" written down the long sleeves of his T-shirt. Those challenges, however, are what Corgan finds most rewarding at this stage of his quarter-century career.
Speaking on the phone during a break in the final mixing for "Monuments to an Elegy," one of the two new Pumpkins albums set for release next year, Corgan said he now has a catalog of 300 songs, and the solo acoustic performance gives him a chance to stress his strengths as a singer and songwriter rather than as an alternative-rock showman.
"I feel good as a songwriter that the material is there," Corgan said. "The Pumpkins machine has a certain sound and a certain texture," but in the feedback and distortion some of the finer points of the material get steamrolled. The Ravinia performance gives him a chance to bring out new nuances in the work.
Not that rousing rockers like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" will be part of the set list, now clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes. "In this context it would be a little out of place," Corgan said. "This is a wine-and-cheese crowd."
Instead, he'll do an outtake from the "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" era called "Methuselah," which he called "a very personal song about my father that no one ever heard."
It will be part of a three-song "Mellon Collie Suite" vignette in the concert, to mark that album's 20th anniversary, yet that's about as close as Corgan figures to get to the current trend of performing albums in their entirety, which he considers hackneyed and gimmicky.
"You get this tremendous pressure from the promoters, even managers at times," Corgan said. "Because to them it's all low-hanging fruit.
"They'll sell it to you as, 'Why don't you do this and sort of rebuild the audience, and then when you do come out with a new album you'll have more fans.'
"I don't see evidence of that," Corgan added, suggesting that trotting out oldies only makes listeners more resistant to new material.
"I don't believe people 'love' an artist for being servile," Corgan said. "I know this as a consumer. I separate out the winners and losers based on who has a spine. At the end of the day, long-term, we respect a man like Johnny Cash because he walked his path. … That's what creates an audience who will follow you."
Although, as of now, the solo show is a one-shot, it's possible Corgan could do it again on tour, or mix it with rock-band shows in the manner of Neil Young and his off-and-on relationship with his backing band Crazy Horse.
"You have to convince the audience that there's enough depth and soul there that it's a worthwhile experience," Corgan said.
To that end, the performance will also stress Corgan's hidden strengths as a singer and song interpreter. "You can't really make a show like this work if you don't emote," he added. "I always thought I was a better acoustic singer than I was with electric, and people have often remarked when I sing in private, 'Wow, you have a really sweet voice,' as opposed to the nails-on-chalkboard voice.
"I feel now I can do this. I can interpret at that level," he added. "Luckily, I can still sing in all the original keys. My voice is still pretty intact after all these years of screaming."
The show will also draw on material from "Chicago Kid," an unreleased set of songs written in the wake of his venture with Zwan, one of his Pumpkins sidelines.
"It's really kind of my first solo record, and no one's heard it but a few friends. It's really heartfelt," Corgan said, "an elegy to Chicago."
So why didn't it come out 10 years ago? Corgan worried it would be poorly promoted and squandered by his music label at the time, saying, "I did one of those things where I put my finger up in the air and I thought, 'No way, they're just gonna bury it.'"
Now, it will be the Ravinia audience that puts down its wine and cheese and puts its finger in the air to determine Corgan's popular success or failure, but he seems confident he can put the material across in a new way, even though he calls the process "totally exhausting."
"Because it's such an emotional journey lyrically," Corgan said, adding, "Wow, this is a lot of messed-up times in my life when I wrote these songs."
Yet he has found the process rewarding, and hopes listeners feel the same at the end of Saturday's show, even if they're not getting "Mellon Collie" in its entirety with the full Pumpkins lineup.
"It means something to me. It's the 20th anniversary of writing these songs," he said. "I want to do this," not because the audience wants it, but because he does -- and hopes the audience goes along.