Since the days when they ruled the '90s, Billy Corgan has been the face and voice of The Smashing Pumpkins—and the guy notorious for obliterating any pre-conceived notions of what the band is supposed to sound like and play like. They've veered from a basement-dwelling My Bloody Valentine-worshipping band to one of radio's premiere pop/rock groups, to electro pomp and back again. Musically and lyrically, Smashing Pumpkins are in love with love. As in, 90% of their new material references, describes or desires that specific state of being. But when it comes down to it, some things are better with hate. The Smashing Pumpkins begins and ends with Billy Corgan, whose bristling anger supercharges the band's best material, as he deftly strokes that fine line between commercial success and artistic purity. That confrontational, combative spirit was alive and well when Corgan brought an all-new crew of players to Chaifetz Arena last Wednesday in support of new Smashing Pumpkins album Oceania, but so was that deep desire to love and be loved. Corgan wants his audience to fully appreciate his newest band's newest music, but he knows that the love for his band is based on, and heavily biased toward, the work gone by. He loves to be loved, and he hates to have to prove himself again—it's a push and pull that actually makes for an enthralling performance.
Corgan's perverse streak started with the set list: rather than tuck new, unfamiliar songs between comfortable, familiar hits from the back catalog, the Pumpkins opted to perform the entire new album top-to-bottom. There are awesome moments spread throughout Oceania—"Panopticon" is a particular delight, and "Wildflowers" was a surprise in its grace. But Oceania was not what drew thousands of kids weaned on '90s nostalgia, and the crowd barely registered the first hour of the set. Or it could be that the audience, present company included, was distracted by the much-lauded video mapping happening behind the band. An enormous sphere suspended behind Byrne's drums wobbled and warped with fractured video noise that featured CGI human faces, what looked like seismograph readings, some vague allusions to Joy Division's "Unknown Pleasures" album cover, and occasional flashes of bright, beautiful art.
And to be honest, even the Pumpkins seemed not to find much pleasure in the heavy lifting of the album, getting the job done but rarely breaking out. Though Corgan did acknowledge the crowd with a few "thank you"s there was little to no banter, no playful execution. Neither band nor crowd knew what to do with each other. Wisely, as soon as the last notes of "Wildflower" rang out, Corgan and company dropped into a blistering cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a space-age ode to the loneliness of being the first (and maybe last) of your kind that fits seamlessly into Corgan's personal navel-gazing oeuvre.
Once the Oceania set concluded, something strange happened: actual fun. As the songs grew familiar to the crowd, the new lineup proved themselves not just capable professionals, but insanely talented players. Guitarist Jeff "the shredder" Schroeder should be given an honorary pass into Rock n' Roll Valhalla just for his his sheer balls-to-the-wall guitar banter with Corgan. Guitar solos started flying, some of the bigger hits from the '90s began to make their appearance, and it seemed like all involved let loose, stretched out and had some real kicks. Schroeder and Corgan traded riffs and took turns shredding just for kicks. Bassist Nicole Fiorentino mostly played silent, making the hypnotic rhythm speak for her, which she held down admirably, doing both heavy and languid in equal measure. Drummer Mike Byrne was a piledriver, delivering the thunderous assault on the drumset required by both the new songs and former Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlain's extremely complex, unrelenting, tom-heavy passages.
Even Corgan, notoriously tight-lipped regarding stage banter, loosened up and cracked jokes at the expense of our town's beloved baseball team. He wound up taking a swing at former Cardinal Albert Pujols that had the crowd howling: "I have a friend in crisis," he joked. "He keeps asking 'Did I do the right thing?'" He even made the bold assertion that, while he was a Cubs fan, he figured Detroit would beat us in the World Series. Near the end, the normally cagey Corgan admitted that he was finally having fun.
Admitting that, in front of fans who paid thirty bucks or more to hear classic Smashing Pumpkins hits and who were instead dragged through a new album that not even the band seemed to enjoy much—that is a ballsy move.
The set order post-"Oceania" was a mixed bag of deep cuts, B-sides and a scant selection of hits. The Bowie cover was followed by the harrowing rape-anthem "XYU" ("I was lonely and she was crazy"), itself a deep cut from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It was followed by the charming Ted Bundy vibe of the violin-driven "Disarm." Two more Mellon Collie hits appeared afterward, including a drivingly sincere version of "Tonight Tonight" and a newly retro-fitted "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," which seethed and burned with that classic Pumpkins energy. Corgan took a moment to take a shot at himself during the introduction to extended B-side "A Song For A Son," dedicating it to his father and calling himself an indiscretion that his mother never forgave his father for. Another self-loathing anthem, "Zero" ("God is empty / just like me"), came right after. Byrne's drums crackled at the intro to "Cherub Rock," which gave the perfect coda to the set, setting up expectations for more of the same driving rhythm. Instead, the band checked out for a few minutes, and came back to the thundering stomp of "Ava Adore," the biggest hit from an admitted flop of an album. The encore also included another shred-off between Corgan and Schroeder that built higher and higher and culminated in a crowd-teasing taste of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," before the two cracked up and continued forward. The final song in the encore was the sorta-hit "Muzzle," also from Mellon Collie. "Muzzle"'s autobiographical lyrics were a fitting cap for the evening: "Have you ever heard the words I'm singing in these songs?" he sings. "It's for the girl I've loved all along." Beneath all that anger and spitfire, "I can hear the silence of the world," he says.
Or maybe just the silence of the critics.
Because it wasn't the critics who packed the floor area of Chaifetz and lovingly embraced The Smashing Pumpkins: it was the crowd, packed to the gills with both '90s nostalgia seekers and Pumpkins die-hards, some of whom had been singing every last word of every obscure cut. They were all flashed a broad smile, thrown guitar picks and given loads of attention from Billy before he finally sauntered offstage, having played his own version of the perfect rock star for another couple of hours.
In the end, as ever, Billy Corgan is Billy Corgan and you're not. Despite all his rage, he still loves being in this band, he still loves making new songs for you to enjoy. He still loves love.