For over three hours Monday night, in their return home to Chicago, a partially reunited Smashing Pumpkins lineup, featuring original members Billy Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, looked back on their first five albums in unparalleled fashion...
One of the most defining characteristics of William Patrick Corgan's career has been a generally steadfast refusal to look back.
But over the last few years, he's managed to begin that process without pandering.
It began with an immense series of Smashing Pumpkins album reissues in 2011 (the Adore reissue, for instance, clocks in at 107 tracks) and continued in the summer of 2014 with a solo concert at Ravinia that revisited virtually every facet of his recorded catalog.
Those shows inspired the Smashing Pumpkins "In Plainsong" tour. In the spring of 2016, it featured Siamese Dream deep cuts and more. But, more importantly, on-again, off-again drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was back in the fold and original guitarist James Iha popped up on multiple dates, his first appearances with the Smashing Pumpkins in sixteen years.
The success of those shows laid the groundwork for the current "Shiny and Oh So Bright" tour, which features Corgan, Chamberlin and Iha reunited alongside Jeff Schroeder (Pumpkins guitarist since 2007), bassist Jack Bates and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Katie Cole.
Following much well-documented acrimony, Bates (the son of Joy Division/New Order co-founder Peter Hook) steps in for original bassist D'arcy Wretzky as the group focuses almost solely on the recorded output which makes up their first five, and most celebrated, studio albums: Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), Adore (1998) and Machina/The Machines of God (2000).
For as much outcry as there's been regarding the absence of Wretzky, what's more astounding is just how little time the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup actually spent together. Chamberlin took his first leave in 1996 during the Mellon Collie tour. He returned for a brief tour in 1999, the last to feature the group's original lineup, as Wretzky was out once touring for Machina began.
Regardless of the lineup, the Smashing Pumpkins sound as good on this tour as they ever have. I saw the original lineup in 1994 during a Lollapalooza stop in Tinley Park. This lineup is better.
A lot of which has to do with the presence of three fantastic guitarists.
Corgan, historically underrated as a guitar player, Iha and Schroeder were so good Monday night that it quickly became apparent the challenge would be in following who was handling what guitar parts. Corgan's playing is front and center on stage when he solos and both Iha and Schroeder seem happy to shed that spotlight. Throughout the set, Corgan and Schroeder shined early on "Siva," while Iha and Schroeder took over on a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Billy and James dominated "Mayonnaise," while all three members were equally impressive on a rendition of the Siamese Dream deepcut "Soma," which was a standout Monday evening.
But it's the playing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin that not only anchors the group but nearly steals the show. Arguably the greatest drummer of his generation, Chamberlin's jazz pedigree was on display during the quieter moments of that Bowie cover, while it was the rock bombast of a quick solo to close out "Zero" that brought the sold out crowd to its feet.
Monday's crowd, polite during a forty-five minute opening set from Canadian indie-rockers Metric, was on its feet throughout a Pumpkins set that stretched over three hours.
The show began with a video montage referencing moments from the group's most well-known videos and, following a solo performance by Corgan of "Disarm," continued to set forth a narrative throughout the night (largely thanks to a series of new videos created in collaboration with longtime Corgan cohort Linda Strawberry).
"Chicago! Sweet home Chicago. How are you?" asked Elk Grove Village native James Iha. "We grew up here and now we're rocking here," continued the unlikely master of ceremonies, introducing an acoustic take on the Mellon Collie single "33."
Iha, surprisingly, was the most talkative member of the group Monday night. In a rare self-aware showing, Corgan seemed content to skip between song banter almost entirely, opting instead to let the music do the talking. Gone entirely from Monday night's show, and this tour entirely thus far, are the antagonistic moments that have occasionally come to define past outings. Both the setlist and his demeanor seem to indicate that Corgan's determined, for once, to give fans exactly what they want this time around.
Make no mistake, this tour does embrace nostalgia in a manner that Billy Corgan has vehemently resisted at nearly all turns. But while the setlist, a whopping 31 songs, isn't changing (even across two nights at United Center it was the same), it does go beyond the hits.
"Drown," "Eye" and "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" hit upon the group's recorded soundtrack output and no album was better represented by its deepcuts than Adore performances of "For Martha" and "To Sheila." Iha even took a rare lead vocal turn on "Blew Away" from the group's 1994 outtake compilation Pisces Iscariot.
It's a setlist that offers something for both casual Pumpkins fans and completists alike. And with more new Smashing Pumpkins music supposedly coming soon (the group's latest single "Solara" opened the encore), Corgan's attempts to rally the fanbase via a rare embrace of the group's past was an overwhelming success Monday night in Chicago.
And the group deserves credit for giving fans a full slate of live music. Monday's show began at 7:30PM and ended just before midnight. Rock sets over three hours are rare today and this tour puts the Pumpkins alongside artists like Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses, Foo Fighters and Paul McCartney in that department.
Most established groups on stadium outings like this aren't even taking an opening act with them. But Canadian indie-rockers Metric put forth a fun forty-five minute opening set Monday at United Center.
"It's been really incredible being part of this tour with Smashing Pumpkins," said vocalist Emily Haines as she introduced "Breathing Underwater." Haines moved to keyboards on "Art of Doubt," from the group's forthcoming seventh studio album, and added second guitar to "Gold Guns Girls" later on. The incisive guitar of James Shaw cut through the pre-programmed electronic elements of "Now or Never Now."
"This song is about overcoming the things that stop you from doing the things you're capable of," explained Haines as Metric closed with a rousing take on their biggest single, 2009's "Help I'm Alive."
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )