Smashing Pumpkins Deliver Sonic Tricks and Deep Cut Treats in LA

The acoustic-electro format is a triumph, with the In Plainsong tour representing a rare chance to experience the band in a more intimate sonic fashion.
Liz Phair

There’s a beautiful early spring buzz in the air on this Sunday night in the City of Angels and anticipation runs high as Smashing Pumpkins fans converge downtown to see alt-rock hero Billy Corgan and his latest version of the Smashing Pumpkins. It’s the second show of a two-night stand and the Pumpkin world has been abuzz over the stunning news that original member James Iha sat in with the band the previous night. It was the first time in 16 years that Iha and Corgan had shared a stage, ending one of rock’s longest running estrangements.

There seems to be some kind of healing vibe in the music scene in 2016, what with Slash and Axl from Guns N’ Roses ending a 23-year estrangement this Spring, now followed by this Pumpkins reunion. It represents a glorious throwback to the heady days of the early ‘90s for Gen-X music fans to see such brothers in rock back in action together again. Pumpkins fans began reaping the bounty last summer when incomparable original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin rejoined the band after a five year absence for a triumphant summer tour of full power grunge goodness. There are few bands in music history that rock with the dynamic power and sonic grandeur of the Smashing Pumpkins and the 2015 summer tour showed a band that sounded at the height of its considerable power.

The 2016 “In Plainsong” spring tour on the other hand is billed as an acoustic-electro tour, with the band shifting gears to explore some deep cuts and the Pumpkins’ truly wide-ranging sound. It’s an intriguing way for Corgan to mix things up while offering fans a little something different. The big question on the minds of most attendees is whether Iha’s Saturday night appearance was a one-time event in honor of his 48th birthday the previous evening or whether he would appear again tonight, with everyone hoping for an encore performance.

Indie rock queen Liz Phair is a great choice for the support slot, opening the show with a solo acoustic set featuring the majority of her own beloved ‘90s indie-rock gems. Phair rose to fame during the same time as the Pumpkins, so it’s a treat to hear her set the mood with classic tunes like “Fuck and Run”, “Supernova” and the ever-universal “Divorce Song”. Phair has also run the gamut of live performance parameters, alternating between solo acoustic and full band electric tours throughout her career.

Her songs take on an extra dimension with a full band, but she’s the kind of sassy songstress who can also captivate with just her voice and a guitar. She’s got a unique emotional yearning in her best songs that taps deep into the Gen-X zeitgeist. The only disappointment here is that there’s no team-up between Phair and Corgan.

Phair’s set works well as an intro to the Pumpkins show since Corgan also starts off solo acoustic. The vibe in the theater moves to a higher level as he comes out and plays in front of a vivid psychedelic pink forest backdrop, as if conjuring a magical dream world. “Stumbleine” is one of those somewhat forgotten tunes from 1995’s classic Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness double album that might not fit so well into a fully electrified set, but finds fresh new life here. The buzz in the air rises with “Tonight, Tonight”, a majestic classic from that same album which soars nonetheless in the stripped down acoustic format.

Guitarist Jeff Schroeder joins Corgan for a duo version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, a psyche-rock classic that fits right in Corgan’s cosmic wheelhouse. Another surprise treat occurs with one of Corgan’s epic forgotten tunes, “Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea”, the title track from Zwan’s 2003 Mary Star of the Sea, Corgan’s Pumpkin-ish follow-up to the Pumpkins year 2000 breakup. It feels as if the audience has chanced upon Corgan and Schroeder just relaxing with acoustic guitars and obscure deep cuts in a trippy forest in some far off neverland, a unique treat to experience here in this Earthly realm.

Then the magic moment occurs as Corgan relates how the next portion of the show will feature the Siamese Dream era, adding wryly that “Last night we had this young fella come out and he did so well we thought we’d ask him back”. The crowd goes wild as Iha comes out to join Corgan for an acoustic duo performance of the beloved “Mayonaise”. The song reappeared in the repertoire last summer with magnificent results, such as the stunning rendition delivered at Irvine Meadows with a wall of sound that highlighted the 2015 concert year.

It shines in a different way here with the delicate melodies brought out by the acoustic format. The audience gets a window on what it might have been like watching the duo play around with the song circa 1992. Corgan and Iha are all smiles as the crowd eats up the inspiring reunion that makes one wonder what took so long.

Corgan and Iha remain on acoustics as the rest of the band joins the party for “Soma”, with Schroeder adding psychedelic fills on electric guitar and bassist Katie Cole and keyboardist Sierra Swan joining with Chamberlin to add a delicate rhythm section to the sonic foundation. “Rocket” loses some of its original power in the acoustic-electro format, but the softer arrangement highlights Corgan’s emotional vocal and the song’s compelling melodies as Corgan sings of being free. Iha switches to electric on “Today”, with many in the audience singing along on the hit song that Corgan once quipped won him American Idol.

This sets the stage for the deep cut highlight of the evening as the band dips into 1994’s Pisces Iscariot for the magical mystery ride of “Whir”. Ostensibly composed of B-sides and outtakes, the Smashing Pumpkins were on such a roll at the time that the album still stands as an alt-rock classic for any era. “Whir” always had an acoustic foundation so it’s a perfect choice for this format, with the three guitarists meshing perfectly while Chamberlin and Cole provide a dynamic low end to elevate the groove to a sublime level that has many in the seated theater moving and grooving in their seats. The Siamese Dream segment of the show concludes with Corgan on keyboards for “Disarm”, perhaps an appropriate elegy for the void that separated Corgan and Iha for so many years before this weekend’s heartwarming reunion.

Corgan stars as frontman with no guitar on “Saturnine” as Chamberlin lays down a heavy industrial beat while Cole and Swan dance like pleasure models from a Bladerunner type of future world as they add backing vocals. Schroeder rips off hot licks at the end with some extra psychedelic feedback to close the tune, much to the delight of the audience. Chamberlin then continues with a similar beat behind a puzzling cover of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Identify”. This is not to say Imbruglia doesn’t have her own place in ‘90s alt-pop-rock lore, but it’s hard to see why this song was brought into the set when the Pumpkins have such a vast catalogue to choose from. It must have some particular meaning for Corgan and so it provides a window into his complex psyche. Then it’s back to crowd-pleasers with the ever-infectious “1979”, which sparkles in the electro format while conjuring a crowd singalong that makes it feel like 1995.

A surprise highlight occurs with “Stand Inside Your Love” from 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, as the band delivers a shimmering acoustic rendition of the melodic gem. The backdrop is now of a big tree in a dark blue bog, like some kind of wisdom tree on a distant world. The otherworldly song features a gorgeous duet between Cole and Corgan on the heartfelt romantic rocker and it’s amazing how Corgan keeps pulling dynamic female bass players out of his magic hat like rabbits.

Cole is another in a long line of winners and is hopefully staying with the band for the duration. If not, there are sure to be a slew of musicians who would love to start a band with her since charismatic female musicians who can also sing are in ever-scarce supply. “Pinwheels” from 2012’s Oceania shines in the acoustic format as well, another acoustic based song that benefits from the female backing vocals.

Corgan switches over to electric guitar for the end of the show with Swan moving to bass as Cole stars on lead vocals and acoustic guitar for a truly smashing rendition of Hole’s “Malibu”. Corgan co-wrote the hit song with Courtney Love and it always somehow felt destined for the Pumpkins repertoire. It’s a great addition to the set with Cole showing her multi-dimensional skills again on the alt-rock anthem that features lyrics Love wrote inspired by her late husband Kurt Cobain’s stay at a rehab clinic in Malibu just up the coast.

A starry backdrop over a dark blue night sky only enhances the special vibe that has taken over the theater. Then it’s more deep cut heaven as Corgan leads the band through the newer “Spaniards”. The band rocks out with Corgan ripping off a spectacular guitar solo. It’s his only electric guitar solo of the night but he makes it count and it hits even deeper as Schroeder joins in for an Allman-esque harmony lead jam that soars to end the set.

Iha rejoins the band for an encore rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” that closes the night with some more of the Smashing Pumpkins’ patented ability to put their own stamp on anything Corgan might choose to cover. The acoustic-electro format is a triumph, with the In Plainsong tour representing a rare chance to experience the band in a more intimate sonic fashion. The creative endeavor is said to be an influence on the impending new album the band will record, which bodes well for the band’s future. The only real critique one can offer of this tour is that the same setlist is used each night, something of an injustice to band’s vast song catalog. But it’s great to see Corgan feeling happy and hopeful, which bodes well for the Smashing Pumpkins to continue on as not just one of the greatest bands of the ‘90s but one of the best rock bands of 2016 and beyond.