By Brian Ives
Last night at New York’s Beacon Theatre, Billy Corgan led the Smashing Pumpkins through a set of songs that split the difference between what most fans want from legendary artists (the hits) and why fans love those artists (their creativity and rebellious spirit, which often doesn’t mesh with nostalgia).
When Radio.com last saw the Pumpkins, it was at the Jones Beach Theater in the summer of 2015, co-headlining with Marilyn Manson. The Pumpkins’ set that night leaned towards songs that most alt-rock radio listeners from the ’90s would know by heart. But of the 17 songs the Pumpkins played that night, only five made the setlist at the Beacon: it was almost a completely different show. How different? Well, Corgan didn’t even pick up an electric guitar until the very end of the set, opting for the acoustic, or keyboards, or even not playing a guitar at all. And while the setlist leaned heavily towards the ’90s, only eleven of the 25 songs played could reasonably be described at hits.
Corgan opened the show, accompanied by just his acoustic guitar, with an unreleased song, “Cardinal Rule” that he has said might make a future album. From there he stuck with the solo acoustic format with a Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness deep cut, “Stumbeline,” followed by one of that album’s big hits, “Tonight, Tonight.” When that double album came out in 1995, “Tonight” was a lushly arranged song that demonstrated how Corgan stood out from his peers: he dared to venture outside of production techniques that could be referred to as “punk rock.” Last night though, “Tonight Tonight” was stripped down to just a guitar and vocal, and it held up without any production at all.
The hits seemed to have a bit more weight when sprinkled sparingly throughout the set, which drew from Corgan’s career outside of the Pumpkins as well: surely few fans expected to hear his unreleased solo song “The World’s Fair,” but he played that song as well. This wasn’t a show for casual fans. Or at least, it wasn’t for fans who only wanted hits.
After that, Corgan was joined by guitarist Jeff Schroeder for a cover of David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity,” and then opening act Liz Phair joined for Mellon Collie‘s “Thirty-three.” From there, he took another unexpected turn, revisiting his post-Pumpkins band Zwan with “Mary Star of the Sea/Jesus I” from their sole album, 2003’s Mary Star of the Sea.
Corgan, who seemed to enjoy bantering with the audience, then explained that he’d be playing a suite of songs from an album from the past: 1993’s Siamese Dream. One of the quintessential albums of ’90s alternative rock, the album in its original form featured layers of distorted guitars and pounding drums. But here, he was accompanied either just by Schroeder, or by Schroeder and the rest of the current band, original drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (who was playing in a somewhat restrained style), bassist/singer/guitarist Katie Cole and keyboardist/singer/bassist Sierra Swan. Throughout, Corgan played acoustic and Schroeder played a very clean electric guitar, casting new light on “Mayonnaise,” “Soma” (featuring Corgan on electric piano) “Rocket,” “Spaceboy,” “Today,” “Whir” (an outtake that was released on the 1994 collection Pieces Iscariot). Then, the band left, and Corgan took to the synthesizer for a solo take on “Disarm.” Schroeder is kind of Corgan’s secret weapon, live: particularly on “Rocket,” he took the rock masterpiece and made it sound like Trevor Rabin-era Yes (a compliment, obviously).
After the Dream suite, Corgan offered a surprising version of what a Smashing Pumpkins performance could look like: they did a pair of songs with Schroeder on guitar, Corgan singing but not playing, and Cole and Swan on backing vocals for Corgan’s solo “Sorrows (In Blue)” and then “Eye” from the Lost Highway soundtrack, one of the Pumpkins early forays into electronic music leading up to Adore (which, sadly, went untouched during the show). They performed both of these songs accompanied by a backing track, something that would be been as heresy during the ’90s. Then, as now, Corgan gives few f-bombs about that, and he’s the better artist for that.
“Saturine,” from the still-officially-unreleased 2000 Pumpkins album Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music followed, and then Natalie Imbruglia’s “Identify,” a song Corgan co-wrote with the singer for the 1999 film Stigmata. That led to the show’s arena-rock moment, a version of “1979” that sounded close to the original; Corgan even led the audience to sing along.
He then retooled the heavy metal stomper “Stand Inside Your Love” from 2000’s Machina I: The Machines of God, splitting lead vocals with Cole, and then went to one of the only post-reunion songs of the night, “Pinwheels” from 2012’s “Oceania.”
Mellon Collie‘s “Lily (My One and Only)” was played as a waltz; Corgan broke down laughing during the performance; clearly the guy has learned to stop worrying too much. Then he shared vocals with Cole again, strapping on an electric guitar for Hole‘s “Malibu,” one of the songs he co-wrote from 1998’s Celebrity Skin. Finally, another new song, “The Spaniards,” and after singing “Happy Birthday” to Swan, a final cover: the Rolling Stones‘ “Angie.”
It’s interesting that a few nights ago, Corgan was joined by original Pumpkins guitarist James Iha on stage; for years, he’s seemed to bristle at the idea that the lineup of the band is of any importance at all. Perhaps this show, and this setlist is Corgan’s commentary on what he’s able to do under the banner of “The Smashing Pumpkins,” and the answer finally seems to be: anything he wants to. He could have as many of his musicians on stage as he wants to (or none at all), he can rearrange songs however he feels like. He could play songs from his solo projects or Zwan, or songs he’s co-written, it’s all fair game.
The aforementioned summer show was the Pumpkins doing a ’90s version of a classic rock show, and there’s something awesome about rocking a huge amphitheater full of people on a summer night with a full setlist of songs that nearly everyone knows by heart. What he’s doing now is somewhat more difficult, and more akin to what Neil Young does: he’s requiring the audience to stick with him as a fan of him, rather than just his songs; he’s expecting a lot more of them than many of his peers do. It’s more risky, but surely more rewarding. And should he want to return to the arenas, surely another ’90s tour will be ready for him whenever he wants to do it.
Fellow Chicagoian Liz Phair opened the show accompanied only by her guitars (she switched from electric to acoustic throughout the night). Her reputation as a live performer used to be in question during her ’90s heyday. Now, she seems much more confident and was able to command the theatre’s attention on the merit of her songs and in-between song banter.
For those who have obsessed about her lyrics, she revealed that “Johnny” in “Dance of the Seven Veils” was about a former roommate who was an insufferable indie rock snob (“He was right about everything, of course,” she said, probably placating him still, all these years later), that there really was a bartender named Harry from “Polyester Bride,” and also that, while many have claimed to be the subject of “Supernova” (“Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16 And you f— like a volcano and you’re everything to me”) none of those folks are actually the subject of the song. “But if you think it’s about you, please see me after the show.”
Phair stuck mostly with ’90s material, but also reminded that her story is still unfolding with a new song called “Our Dog Days Behind Us.”