For the last few years The Smashing Pumpkins’ mastermind, Billy Corgan, has rather bluntly argued that his band has evolved into some new species, and that the band mainly has moved on: it yearns to play new songs. Maybe that should be the case because the “band” is not precisely Smashing Pumpkins. It is largely Corgan and his entourage of skilled musical comrades. However, in some sense it has always been Corgan’s band, much like Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, or, now, Courtney Love’s Hole: A solo project masquerading as a band, or, a band’s name for a creative and prodigious solo musician.
But at Capitol Federal Park Saturday night, Corgan, who is supposed to be promoting the group’s work-in-progress Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, played something of a “greatest hits” or, if you will, most popular songs gig. Is it the Rolling Stones now or what? Is Las Vegas possibly up next? It was incredible to witness Corgan do such a thing. For instance, few songs were played from either unreleased material or the mammoth 44-song Teargarden project. One got the clear sense that Corgan had, in fact, forsaken his belief in a new course for the band. It seemed he had pandered to the audience, and that he was genuinely bitter about the whole charade.
At one point Corgan very subtly lambasted the audience for wishing to hear “familiar” material. The rather ironic fact is that the few new songs that were played happened to be both the most intriguing and well-done, especially the blistering, unreleased “As Rome Burns”, and, also, the perfectly performed “Freak”, from Teargarden. Many of the band’s 1990s acclaimed hits—from Siamese Dream (1993) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)—were either uninspired or butchered in some manner, especially “Tonight, Tonight”. The new songs were the principal highlight of this live rendition, aside from pristine versions of opener “Cherub Rock” and the sarcastic “Today”.
A key moment from the iconic band’s 90-minute set was a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”, during which all members save the drummer hit the stage’s margins. Why? The song was played primarily to underscore and showcase the Pumpkins’ new drummer, Mike Byrne. “Moby Dick” features a critical drum solo, and Byrne played well, and is indeed ready for prime time. Though certain misgivings remain on my part concerning the departure of the jazz-trained Jimmy Chamberlin, Byrne adds something different to the Pumpkins’ sound, perhaps a bit more bang, and maybe, necessary youthful gusto. The band also debuted yet another bassist. Nicole Fiorentino, formerly of Veruca Salt, performed admirably. Her bass guitar parts on “Freak”, “United States”, and “Ava Adore” were particularly remarkable. It seems guitarist Jeff Schroeder has a more substantial role now, playing some major guitar parts (“Freak”) but also, many times, playing cute little solo bits.
The Pumpkins displayed little to no theatricality or drama, with the exception of Corgan’s brief cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during which he played guitar with his teeth. Corgan also comically hit a beach ball off the stage with his guitar like he was a Chicago Cub. A better example of the band’s lack of antics can be viewed against a moment during one of the band’s 2008 twentieth-anniversary gigs in Kansas City. The band opened with “Ava Adore”, and Corgan donned a pitch black dress of sorts and slowly strutted about the stage with a mic. He played no guitar; instead, he chose to dramatize the song’s lyrics, which was an incipient homage to Queen’s Freddie Mercury.
Sadly, nothing of the sort occurred tonight with “Ava Adore”. Instead, the band re-arranged the song and put emphasis primarily on Corgan and Schroeder’s blazing guitars. Corgan’s excessive solo zeal at the conclusion was riveting and excellent. Still, the sinister, histrionic nature of the song was found wanting. In drama’s place came a psychedelic tinge to many of the Pumpkins’ songs, especially “Drown”, and the drawn-out “United States” from Zeitgeist (2007). This lysergic dimension also came out in “A Song for a Son” and a rarity, “Eye” from David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack (1997).
One wonders why the highly trippy new song “Astral Planes” was not played, or for that matter “Spangled”. Also noticeably absent was a single song from Gish (1991)? In fact, only three new songs were performed, and these three won the night. If only The Smashing Pumpkins could negotiate some kind of balance between the new material and the certified hits, then true evolution could occur. I’ll be waiting.