I am, and have been for multiple decades now, a fairly ardent fan of The Smashing Pumpkins. For years they maintained a constant home in my CD player and I listened to their catalog religiously throughout my twenties, ruining their music for one of my college roommates by overplaying his initial affinity into irritation. I finally got to catch The Pumpkins live back in 2000 on the tour for Machina, and the very next day they announced on the radio that they were breaking up. I thought I would never get to see The Smashing Pumpkins again and, though I have been to two of their concerts since...I was correct.
The Smashing Pumpkins have toured a number of times since their initial break-up, each time presenting a rotating cast of band members with Corgan as the only constant. One of those times I caught them at Terminal 5 in NYC with Billy Corgan as the only original member. That show wasn't worth talking about, but this current tour is.
Shiny and Oh So Bright is a serious endeavor of impressive production quality: multiple costume changes, sharply coordinated light shows, original videos displayed on towering, moving screens. Corgan even brought back original bandmates Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) and James Iha (guitar), though bassist D'arcy Wretzky wasn't included (there are stories that she was initially invited and then had her invitation rescinded; Billy's version differs). Both Chamberlin and Iha were excellent as always; Jimmy remains one of the best drummers I have ever had the privilege of seeing perform live. However, even with all these pieces in place, something didn't match up to that first Pumpkins concert I vividly remember. I would have much preferred to have seen Wretzky on bass, but she had already left the band by the Machina tour when I saw them, so that wasn't it...
While it isn't uncommon for a band to pull from a consistent selection of songs on a tour with only moderate variations in order and tunes played, it is unusual for them to play a three-hour set of the same songs in the same basic order night after night. The latter is the case with this tour, making it feel more like following the song list in a program for a musical than the set list for a band. Not a real complaint, but it was odd to be able to know with almost 100% certainty which song was coming next. These Pumpkins work their way through an extensive list of fan favorites, from their debut release Gish to the final release of their original manifestation, Machina. They played each song with conviction and intensity and their musicianship was tight, so no complaints there. They are not going through the motions on this tour but rather giving the music its due respect, and if you're eager to engage in some legitimate '90s nostalgia and want to hear the songs on their recurring set list, then buy a ticket and go -- but there was still something strange about the experience. It didn't hit me at first, but slowly the thought occurred to me. Underneath the very professional surface of a finely tuned and smoothly running performance was the nagging realization that this feels less like seeing a band in concert and more like catching a Vegas revue of a once popular act, starring Billy Corgan.
While it is undeniable that Billy was always the key and most contributing figure of The Smashing Pumpkins, there was a time when they were much more of a genuine band. In some ways D'arcy isn't the only band member who has been left behind -- while Jimmy and James were certainly present on stage, it felt as though they were relegated to the role of guest artists rather than fellow band members. Sure, James got to sing his well-known Pumpkins love song, "Blew Away," but even this seemed like a bit of a concession, as Billy left the stage for this moment ,then returned to get back to playing his music. If there's any question about this being a frontman's vanity project, just look to the new video content created for this show and you will notice that it is extremely Billy-centric. There are brief moments where Jimmy and James appear in clips from old videos (again, absolutely no D'arcy), but all the new material is pure Billy: childhood Billy pictures, Billy-like cartoons, current-day Billy in videos with attractive younger women -- the one unifying component is always Billy.
Finding a balance between accepting Billy for who he is as a person and the amazing music he has created is something that long-term Pumpkins fans have to make their own peace with at some point. While there are few songs penned by Corgan from his 1991-2000 releases that don't betray the touch of his musical brilliance, I have almost never heard anything but negative and horrifying stories about him otherwise. These dark tales would have one believe that he is a self-absorbed, difficult prick, and the underlying impression from this present tour doesn't contradict the theme that it's all about him.
Without a doubt the weirdest and most off-putting moments of the evening were the videoed guest appearances made by Mark McGarth as vaudeville-styled interludes, leaving audience members to ponder "Is that 'Sugar Ray' and what the hell is he doing here?!" Aside from the overlap of both artists performing in the early '90s, these interjections seem random at best. Either way, these clips drag on with an obnoxious energy, only working to conjure memories of songs better left forgotten.
All this raises the question: What is the purpose of this tour? Was it really for us, the fans, to take a moonlit stroll together down memory lane and revisit a time when Rock was still king? Was Billy feeling lonely, is he looking to revitalize his performance career and pave the way for a new album, or is it just about the money? I actually in some ways hope it's the latter; at least that would be relatively honest. All that being said, it was an enjoyable experience, just not nearly as meaningful as the one from my younger years. Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe Billy's getting even older. Or maybe, like an enraged rodent in captivity once said, "time is never time at all, you can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth"...or significant parts of the band that once meant so much to you.
The nightmare rides on with tour dates in the U.S. through September 5th, then moves on to Canada and Europe, wrapping up in Bologna, Italy on October 18th. For more information visit: http://www.smashingpumpkins.com/
Set list from the Seattle, Key Arena performance (virtually identical to all other set lists I've seen from this tour): https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-smashing-pumpkins/2018/keyarena-seattle-wa-73e8cafd.html