the smashing pumpkins

The more they changed, the less we felt:
The Smashing Pumpkins satisfy longtime fans during the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour performance

for The Oklahoman / NewsOK

by Rob Ferguson

Oklahoma City’s July 14 date for the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour” was only the second arena performance on what is slated to be a 40-plus-show run spanning the remainder of the year. It’s something of a reunion, with founding members Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin performing onstage together for the first time since 2000. (They’re joined by Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Jack Bates on bass and Katie Cole on keys.)

The impact of this reunion, like pretty much every 20-year reunion in 2018, has sort of been ruined by the internet. First, there’s the conspicuous absence of founding bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who has participated in some fairly volatile online feuding with Corgan since the reunion was announced. Then, there’s the elephant in the room: Pumpkins fans already know what everyone involved has been doing since we all last saw each other, and one of the things Corgan has been doing, at least since 2005, is touring and making records as the Smashing Pumpkins … mostly sans Chamberlin and definitely without Iha and Wretzky.

Corgan is, by reputation at least, a storied control-freak possessed of an interminable ego. Add to that a tendency toward purposely alienating his collaborators and the fans who’ve tried to stay along for the ride in fretful and surprising ways. So the reunion tour did raise concern, as posed by Joe Coscarelli for The New York Times in March: “The question now is whether fans — who have weathered years of diminishing returns from Mr. Corgan’s mercurial antics, broken promises and odd decisions — will allow themselves to trust the band enough to care.”

I went into Saturday’s show jaw clenched, nervous for the thousands of die-hard Pumpkins fans who filled out Chesapeake Arena’s seats on the promise of Corgan and company’s return to their most-admired form: an evening full of material almost exclusively from the band’s first five albums, performed faithfully by (most of) the musicians on said records.

At promptly 8:15 p.m., following a brief and politely received opening set by Canadian rock band Metric, Corgan took the stage and performed “Disarm,” from 1993’s “Siamese Dream,” alone, his reported 6′ 3” form towering in silver boots and a black jacket emblazoned with a zero on the back, a nod to the “Zero” persona he developed starting with the video for 1995’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Defaced childhood photos of Corgan cycled on-screen behind him, one of the only moments in the show where the video work had any real gravitas. “I used to be a little boy,” Corgan yelped in his trademark nasally tenor, which, at 51 years old, sounds as powerful as ever. “So old in my shoes.”

There was probably not a better way to start the show than with an air of vulnerability, however staged it may have been. Otherwise, Corgan is a rock star through and through, a bizarre and charismatic frontman who strutted and costume-changed his way through 31 songs in a set that lasted just over three hours.

Remember how insane it seemed to put out a two-hour, two-disc alternative rock record in 1995? And how good of an idea we thought “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was once we’d listened to it? I left the show feeling that same way, that the high points and admiration for the band’s sheer ambition more than made up for any perceivable lows. They continue to gild the lily, in other words, but at their core, they’re exceptional enough to warrant looking past the frills.

Among those high points: early hits like “Today” and “1979,” which brought a wave of well-deserved nostalgia along with hard-hitters like “Zero,” which was preceded by a decidedly creepy video speech from Corgan, during which he pronounced, “Let’s blow on fading embers, to boast about things … forgotten and buried. ‘Tis the end, ‘tis the end, ‘tis the end.” “Mayonaise” [sic] from “Siamese Dream” into “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” (from “Mellon Collie”) was another strong pairing, both songs kicking off with jangly, quiet guitar work leading into the meaty ‘90s alt-rock the band helped define.

And among the lows: the muddled concept of the video screen content, some of which was beautiful, some of which was generic and some of which was, for some reason, Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath in a vaudeville costume blathering on so the band could take short breaks.

Also, Corgan’s voice is so recognizable that cover songs just come off kind of weird. Their take on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came closest to feeling OK in context, but a stunted performance of “Landslide” and a hilariously overwrought “Stairway to Heaven” were only saved by being the bread on a “Tonight, Tonight” sandwich, a song so well-written and well-produced that it sounds timeless and that they performed without fault.

For the first time in a very long time, the Smashing Pumpkins delivered on exactly what their fans wanted and then some, which is a bit of a miracle, even if it was by design.

“We collectively need to rebuild the public trust in our brand,” Corgan said in the aforementioned NYT piece, before going on to admit, “We’re going to say, ‘Look, yes, we’re brats. Yes, we’ve tested your patience. But this is our absolute best effort.’ ”

Maybe, in the life span of an artist’s career, no apologies ever need be made, but for perhaps in the first time in the history of the Smashing Pumpkins, concessions are being made, at least. Corgan, despite all his rage, seems at peace with the legacy he’s masterminded. He spoke very little throughout the show until the end, when he introduced his bandmates, calling out Iha and Chamberlin in particular for spending so much time with “a freak” like himself. He commented on how remarkable it is for a band to have a 30-year history and thanked the crowd for making it possible.

They finished their set with “Muzzle,” during which Corgan sang, particularly meaningfully in light of the captive audience, “My life has been extraordinary,” before returning for an encore led off by “Solara,” a new Rick Rubin-produced single that sounds as at-home during their greatest hits show as it would on any featured album. Maybe, as his visage commanded earlier, “Tis the end,” but maybe that end also is a beginning.

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