Do you really care if a singer is a megalomaniac if the music sounds really fucking good?
(Photo: Peter Hutchins)
Moda Center, Portland, OR
For those of us who came of age in the mid-‘90s the music of the Smashing Pumpkins still likely triggers similar feelings of an epoch lost, easy, careless days of cruising around with our friends, the future big and bright and shiny. We spent lazy nights in our dorm contemplating the album art included with the double-CD set of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness while working out the opening riff of “Today” on the guitar. The Pumpkins, at the time, were one of the biggest bands, headlining Lollapalooza and dominating MTV. Then Billy Corgan burned, or squandered if you prefer, the goodwill of his fans.
Regrouping as three-quarters of the band’s most seminal lineup (bassist D’Arcy Wretzky was acrimoniously not invited), Corgan is trying his best to win back longtime fans with the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour, a 3.5-hour marathon of 32 songs that rarely strays beyond 2000’s MACHINA/The Machines of God. Nothing from the Pumpkins’ three later albums appears as the bulk of the setlist hits on the band’s sweet-spot of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. The curmudgeonly Corgan was never much of one for looking back, but for a band that really hasn’t been relevant for 20 years, now is as good a time as ever.
After opening with the instrumental “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” Corgan took the stage alone and played an acoustic version of “Disarm” (backed by prerecorded music). Behind him, a giant screen flashed images and videos of the singer as a child, perhaps hitting the “I used to be a little boy” line a bit too hard. But that performance set the tone for the evening, one that alternated between strong versions of enduring hits and batshit flourishes that made me worry for Corgan’s sanity.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: the self-idolatry was insane. Giant videos and pictures of the singer flashed during performances including tarot card replicas with Corgan’s face. At one point, during a dead-serious reading of “Stairway to Heaven,” men in robes carted a Corgan/Jesus statue around the audience. It wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. There were some loopy interstitial videos of Mark McGrath in a vaudeville barker’s outfit waxing poetically about some nonsense or another. And in a swipe at his former bandmate, D’Arcy was edited completely out of all archival footage. If these shenanigans sound a bit like our Commander-in-Chief, there is likely some competition of biggest ego taking place between these two.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Corgan has always considered himself an underdog though. His music was never as beloved or lionized as the songs of Nirvana or early Pearl Jam. He also attracted the derision of indie stalwarts such as Stephen Malkmus and Kim Gordon. For someone with such an outré ego, the past 20 years of bad reviews and poorly received public shenanigans must have taken its toll. Corgan needed this Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour as much as his fans did.
Corgan changed costumes numerous times throughout the set, ranging from black clothes and half a silver skirt to looking like one of the caped aliens out of Dark City. Corgan also didn’t say much until the final moments, leaving all the banter to guitarist James Iha, who looked dapper in a white suit (one that Corgan later polled the audience about during the encore). It felt odd to have a sideman do the heavy lifting when addressing the crowd, but Corgan has never been considered a great personality. But do you really care if a singer is a megalomaniac if the music sounds really fucking good?
And really fucking good did this iteration of Pumpkins play, bouncing from favorites such as “Tonight, Tonight” and “Cherub Rock” to deep cuts like “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” and “Blew Away.” The band did Bowie (“Space Oddity”) and Fleetwood Mac covers (“Landslide”). Corgan proved he could still rock on the inspiring “Zero” and play delicate melodies on songs such as “Thirty-Three.” He also screwed with setlist logic by putting some obscurities near the end (“The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning,” “Try, Try, Try”) after playing “1979.”
The setlist was a cornucopia of goodness for fans waiting two decades for Corgan to get his shit together. Even if Corgan decided to end the show with new song “Solara” and a cover version of “Baby Mine,” the encore felt like something a little extra, a palate cleanser after the main course. The future for Corgan as a musician may be no longer shiny and oh so bright, but the past sure as hell was.