Photo via Smashing Pumpkins Instagram
A few weeks ago, Anderson Cooper called Billy Corgan out for what he thought was questionable behavior (to say the least) for an alternative icon. Opening a tea shop in the suburbs? Taping furniture store commercials? Posing for photo shoots with kittens? Why, that doesn’t seem very rock and roll at all!
But he just isn’t the rage-filled, wilting flower he was 20 years ago. Thank god. Seven years after reviving the Smashing Pumpkins moniker, it’s clear that Corgan is in a pretty great place right now (and not just because he can sell out of “FUCK ANDERSON COOPER” t-shirts featuring his cats). But rather than trying to begrudge him for doing whatever eccentric things float his boat, it’s time to recognize that he’s able to do some of his best work when he’s feeling fulfilled.
That’s probably why night’s performance at Thalia Hall, the first of the Monuments to an Elegy-era, felt downright celebratory. The venue, a recently restored concert hall that holds just over 800, was packed with die-hards who braved the cold (and, in some cases, outrageous StubHub prices) to catch an intimate set from Chicago’s favorite hometown heroes. But this show wasn’t about pleasing the crowd or playing the hits. This was about what it means to be the Smashing Pumpkins in 2014.
Unlike the bombastic prog of Oceania, the new material shows off Corgan’s underappreciated ability to write amazing pop songs. He beamed with pride during new singles “Drum + Fife” and “Tiberius”, delivering explosive choruses that would make the guys in U2 wonder where they lost their way. “I’ll let you all take a moment to pre-order it on your phones,” joked Corgan after the live debut of “Being Beige”. Nearly half of the setlist was new or unreleased, including “Burnt Orange-Black”, a song Corgan had previously debuted at a solo performance over the summer.
Of course, the band offered more than a few olive branches to the older fans. The most obvious was the one-two-three-four punch of “Drown”, “Disarm”, “Zero”, and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that whipped the room into a frenzy near the end of the set. But just as it started to look like they were content to finish the night by busting out the hits, an acid rock cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” and a punishing “Silverfuck” kept things brilliantly weird.
Everyone was curious to see the band’s new lineup. The Pumpkins were always one of the most ambitious acts of their era, so it only makes sense that Corgan would want to surround himself with arena-ready musicians. Enter Drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine) and bassist Mark Stoermer (The Killers). Few can hold a candle to founding member/human stopwatch Jimmy Chamberlin, but it’s been a serious challenge for Corgan to find a drummer who isn’t a gimmicky teenage prodigy or, well, Tommy Lee. Wilk’s heavy-handed playing felt out of place on some songs and was downright sloppy on older cuts like “Hummer” and “Drown”. Stoermer, meanwhile, was unusually shy, hardly ever looking up from his fretboard.
But while the all-star rhythm section may have been more buzzworthy, it would be a shame to ignore guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who has been with the band since the dark days of Zeitgeist. Whether he was engaging in a ferocious guitar battle during “Silverfuck” or making fun of the recent hipster infestation in the neighborhood surrounding the venue, his onstage chemistry with Corgan can be downright bromantic. Anyone who still sees him as “James Iha’s replacement” needs to take another look, because his contributions have been essential to the evolution of the band over the last seven years.
With another new album coming in 2015, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Smashing Pumpkins over the next year. But this is more a “step in the right direction” or the mythical “return to form” that we expect from veteran acts. It’s time to recognize that this incarnation of the band is able to stand on its own. So when Billy Corgan says he’s going to bang this drum until his dying day, we should probably believe him.
One and All (We Are) (Live debut)
Being Beige (Live debut)
Tiberius (Live debut)
Drum + Fife (Live debut)
Glass and the Ghost Children
Stand Inside Your Love
Monuments (Live debut)
Bullet with Butterfly Wings
Fame (David Bowie cover)