As Smashing Pumpkins prepare for the fourth night of their historic 12-show residency at rock’s most hallowed hall, questions abound. What will be the effect of its two new members, and can version 2.0 match the legendary intensity of the original?
Anticipation is high inside the Fillmore, as Smashing Pumpkins prepare to take the stage for the fourth night of their historic 12-show residency at rock’s most hallowed hall. The '90s alt-rockers have only just returned to the music scene, and big questions abound. Can Smashing Pumpkins really exist without its original bassist and second guitarist? What will the effect of its two new members be? How will the songs from the new album hold up live? Can Smashing Pumpkins 2.0 match the legendary intensity that won the original group its devoted following? The stark cover of Zeitgeist, the band’s first new album in seven years, depicts a sinking Statue of Liberty -- a declaration of the new incarnation’s more political direction -- and the lyrics to songs such as “Doomsday Clock” and “United States” follow suit. Whether the album contains any true classics remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that it represents a return to the scintillating guitar-driven rock that helped the band sell millions of albums in its heyday. Smashing Pumpkins' appearance at the Fillmore also marks a special homecoming, for it was at the height of their glory that the group re-opened the classic venue on April 27, 1994. (It had previously undergone a five-year silence in the wake of damage from the 1989 San Francisco earthquake). It’s 13 years later, and there’s a buzz in the air as the lights go down. Before we can release our bated breath, singer/guitarist/Head Pumpkin Billy Corgan emerges all by his lonesome with an acoustic guitar. He starts to play a tune that sounds a bit like Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” -- which Corgan has in fact recorded -- but turns out to be “The Leaving Lament”. Two more acoustic numbers follow, and, while they're pleasing enough, the crowd is getting antsy. Corgan must sense this, as he grabs his electric guitar and leads the quickly emerging band into the majestic “Tonight, Tonight” from 1995's multi-platinum smash Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Suddenly, it feels like the mid-'90s, and the crowd comes to life. The futuristic lighting rig that adorns the room also snaps into action, and it’s as if the Fillmore’s psychedelic circuit is suddenly lit. The band tears into "Tarantula", the hard-rocking single from Zeitgeist, and it's here that the full power of the Pumpkins is first felt. The newbies -- second guitarist Jeff Schroeder and bassist Ginger Reyes -- prove themselves capable, but the sound seems slightly muddy, and things aren’t quite clicking. Fan favorite "Zero" gets things fully rocking though, as the band tears through some of its meanest '90s riffs. Corgan even lets Schroeder take some of the solos, and he in turn shows that he can tear it up. But alas, the song is too brief to really get the momentum going. A couple of unfamiliar tunes follow, and it seems the jury is still out on Pumpkins 2.0. But then Corgan pulls out "Drown", and everything falls into place. For many of the band's Gen-X fans, the gorgeous psychedelic epic from 1992's Singles soundtrack was the first Smashing Pumpkins song they ever heard. The opening notes bring a noticeable increase in excitement: the studio version is a true masterpiece, but here the song reaches new heights. By the second verse, the band is picking up the tempo, as Reyes and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin fall into a steady groove. The song soars, and it suddenly becomes clear that Reyes is not just a pretty face -- she can really play the bass. The guitars step up as well, and Corgan dips into the Jimi Hendrix feedback bag that's always made "Drown" a standout track. The band is warmed up now, and it’s full steam ahead into another Mellon Collie smash, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. The Pumpkins tear into the hard-edged rocker with the same intensity they put into "Drown", and the energy continues to build as Corgan lets old venom fly. "Bullet" proves itself to be a true classic -- when Corgan sings, "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," the line feels raw and new, as if it were fresh from a new album. The momentum continues to build as the band launches into a monster rendition of Zeitgeist’s “Doomsday Clock”. The Chamberlin/Reyes rhythm section continues to evolve, and it becomes evident that the studio version fails to fully capture the song’s heavy groove. The heavy rhythm and foreboding lyrics offer a platform for some cathartic, bluesy jamming, as Corgan makes it clear that the future isn’t looking so hot: “This doomsday clock ticking in my heart / These lonely days when will they ever stop? / We gotta dig in / Gas masks on / Wait in the sunshine, all bug-eyed / If this is living? / Sakes alive! Well then they can't win / No one survives." The live version blows away the recorded one -- "Doomsday Clock" is indeed a keeper. After a lengthy jam, Corgan brings things back down with an acoustic rendition of "For God and Country". He follows shortly thereafter with a stellar performance of "1979". Corgan is a king of fully electrified rock 'n roll, but his solo take on "1979" reminds us that he's a master songsmith as well. The acoustic interlude is soon left behind, and the band returns, launching into "United States", Zeitgeist's epic centerpiece. Some critics have declared the song too bombastic, but, as with "Doomsday Clock", the live rendition is far more powerful. The opening vibe conjures Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", and when Corgan sings of "revolution blues," there’s no doubt he's trying to re-conjure the spirit of that anti-war classic. The vibe is re-enforced by psychedelic feedback that conjures another 1969 anti-war classic, Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”. The last verse gives way to a monstrous jam that again far outshines the recorded version, landing with a fury that absolutely mesmerizes the audience. Chamberlin is a wrecking machine on the drums, Reyes is holding down a tight low end, and Corgan is wailing on top. The effect is breathtaking. It's now beyond doubt that the new Smashing Pumpkins are a force to be reckoned with. Chamberlin and Reyes lay down a low end on "That’s the Way" that almost achieves the intensity of "Doomsday" and "United States", while Corgan and Schroeder soar on guitar. The jam shows once again that Corgan's new songs are capable of rocking just as hard as the classics. There’s been little banter from Corgan up to this point -- a surprise, since the first couple shows on the tour yielded a number of amusing clips on YouTube. While Corgan is more focused tonight, he finally comes out of his shell a bit, jokingly introducing the next song as the tune that won "American Idol" for him. With that, he leads the band into a triumphant reading of “Today”, the smash hit from 1993’s Siamese Dream that sent the Smashing Pumpkins to multi-platinum status. There’s nothing for it: the Smashing Pumpkins are back and as good as ever. And how sweet it is.