James Iha's Groovy Live Vibes Sunday, April 5, 1998

Billy Corgan attends solo club date by Pumpkins guitarist.

Correspondent Jennifer Dalton reports:

NEW YORK -- It started as a groovy night for James Iha and his band.

But by the third song of James Iha's sold-out show at the Mercury Lounge on Tuesday night, technical difficulties began to threaten all the good vibes that had filled the club.

It was just a little feedback at that point, tainting "Lover, Lover," perhaps the most beautiful song on Let It Come Down, the debut solo album by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Iha. But it only got worse. Midway through the set, a popping, painfully loud sound interrupted "Sound of Love".

"Pardon me," Iha said, as if he'd burped, a little startled but showing his good sportsmanship. "Mister Soundman, what was that?" he asked, his tone apologetic rather than accusing.

Iha's band began playing the song again, but it was prematurely ended by another pop. Although the band was forced to take a short break to take care of the equipment glitch, nothing could undermine the good feelings that Iha inspired at this second of three showcase gigs to promote his new CD.

Iha may be best-known for his guitar work with those arena-filling, alt-rock heavies, Smashing Pumpkins. But his solo performance at the relatively small Mercury Lounge was greeted with glee and enthusiasm from the crowd. Even Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan was in the house to show support for his bandmate, although he tastefully avoided the spotlight.

It was Iha's night.

"Hi Jaaaames!" a young woman screamed, unable to contain her enthusiasm.

Wearing a fashionably understated, black button-down shirt and jeans, Iha took his place on stage with an embarrassed "Hey" and immediately got down to the business of playing nearly every song on Let it Come Down.

Thrilled by their small-club proximity to a big-league rock star, members of the audience repeatedly attempted to engage Iha, wishing him a happy birthday (he turned 30 a few days ago) and asking, in comically loud voices, "How aaaaaare yooou?" (To which Iha replied, setting the tone for the evening, "Groovy.")

The shocking pop sweetness of Iha's solo debut could be seen as a sort of rebellion against the hard, anxiety-driven music of Smashing Pumpkins. But Iha is far from the first band member to ever pursue his own vision with a side project.

Iha and his band started the set with "Be Strong Now," the opening track on the record. The dulcet, homey sound of the album came through beautifully live, showcasing John Ginty's slippery keyboards and Hammond organ and guitarist Neal Casal's occasional solos and high, sweet vocal harmonies. Iha's voice sounded a bit more vulnerable and less full than on the record, but it was still up to the requirements of the material.

One fan saw the band's unexpected intermission for sonic adjustments as an opportunity. "Hang out with usssss!!!" she implored Iha, yelling at the top of her lungs, though only four feet away from her idol. It was as if she was using all her power to traverse the psychological divide separating rock star from fan.

Even if Iha had wanted to connect with the young woman, the break was too brief to bridge the gulf. Not that it mattered. The musicians played the rest of the show to an ecstatic response.

Penpal and Prime-8 opened up for Iha. Prime-8's blend of folk, country and rock seemed a bit out of place in the evening of alternative pop. But New York's Penpal, up first, got the early attendees bopping and moving.

"New York is always a hard crowd to play, but we felt like we were able to bring them out some tonight," Penpal guitarist Justin Deutsch said.

Thanks at least in part to Iha, that is.