As the year of looking back to 1991 continues, the Smashing Pumpkins are touring. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like every time I turn around another iconic band from the ’90s are being featured on tour, with an album re-release, or a wild anniversary celebration. Not that I’m complaining. 1991 and the years following were, for me, years that shaped how I would listen to music for the rest of my life. Pearl Jam and Nirvana are two of my favorite bands — they always will be — and I still keep multiple Spin Doctors’ records in my regular rotation. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia, even if every once in a while it seems to take over a brief episode of your life.
There are some bands that try and avoid the characterization of “nostalgia act” altogether, and there are others who embrace it. Everyone has their own plan of action — Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, have continued to evolve throughout their tenure, Guns ‘n’ Roses attempted to break back onto the scene with a highly anticipated but disappointing album, and Boys II Men disappeared completely. Billy Corgan seems to have decided to walk the line like a tightrope walker: though he is touring as The Smashing Pumpkins, he is the only original member remaining in the band. The iconic and memorable name is a draw to bring people to his shows, and to buy the albums. But it’s not necessarily just a name. The Pumpkins sound is still mostly intact, and throughout their performance at The Ogden Theater in Denver, Colorado in early October, Corgan and the refreshed lineup played a healthy mix of new and old, without letting themselves lean too far to either side.
The show started strong and loud, and as soon as Corgan’s shrill scream pierced the air, a wave of excitement crashed down and filled the room. Corgan stood much taller above his bandmates — guitarist Jeff Schroeder on his left and bass player Nicole Fiorentino on his right — and at times he hunched over to see the frets on his white Fender Stratocaster, which classically hung low to his waist. Schroeder, though he rarely took the spotlight, pulled some deep cuts out of his guitar and led the fire at the beginning of the evening, but Corgan soon took all control and threw his instrument hard to bring up the volume on every solo. Meanwhile, drummer Mike Byrne sat behind his kit and pounded hard on his skins – some of the only times Corgan smiled during the show were when he’d look up to see Byrne thrashing around in perfect rhythm.
Unfortunately, the crowd itself was less enthusiastic. Anyone who had loved the Pumpkins in their heyday either didn’t show up or just wasn’t in the mood to rock on a Monday evening, and all the younger kids weren’t familiar with about 95% of the songs played. From that first twinge of excitement, the energy stayed consistently low throughout the two-hour set. It made you wonder if most of the people in the room had even been born in time to appreciate Siamese Dream.
That’s not too surprising considering the Pumpkins avoided the majority of their breakout hits and nearly every song off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. But it must be disheartening for a band in the process of putting together a 44-track multi-part album. There are, of course, obstacles for any band that wants to keep things fresh while not losing the ground gained from previous work — but it makes you think that if Corgan wants the true attention this new project deserves, he should just rename the band and have faith that his personal reputation alone will garner some attention.
It wasn’t until the very last possible minute that Corgan addressed the crowd directly. Focused so much on the music that he barely looked up at the audience more than a few times, he took a breather in between the final two songs to thank us profusely before launching into “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. It was the only truly iconic song they played all night, but that is classically Pumpkins, and perfectly Billy Corgan. He’ll do exactly what he wants, but he knows just what he has to do to pull you right in.
Head on over to PopMatters’ Facebook page to see more images from the show by Matthew Speck