Photo: Olivia Bee / Courtesy of BB Gun Press

The Smashing Pumpkins Take Oakland on Alt-Rock Roller Coaster Ride

A huge three-hour set features its share of ups and downs, but there are few bands in modern rock that can rival the sonic power of the Smashing Pumpkins

When former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha sat in with the band on back to back nights at Los Angeles’ Ace Theater in the spring of 2016, shockwaves reverberated throughout the alternative rock world. It was the first time that Iha and Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan had shared a stage and performed together in 16 years and Pumpkins fans across the land were thrilled to hear the news. Rumors quickly started to swirl about a full reunion tour with the original lineup, what with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin having already rejoined the group in 2015.

That left just estranged bassist D’Arcy Wretzky to complete the quartet, who apparently remained too far gone to get it together for this momentous opportunity according to Corgan. Wretzky has claimed otherwise, and only the two of them really know the truth, but such is life sometimes, and so Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlin have proceeded with bassist Jack Bates who proved he can rock these tunes quite excellently on the 2015 summer tour. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder remains on board too as he’s been shredding at Corgan’s side since 2007 and the “Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour” has been hitting arenas across America this summer, stopping here in Oakland on this balmy Monday evening.

Formerly known as the Oakland Coliseum, the venue now named Oracle Arena remains one of the better arena venues in the country for its acoustics but has succumbed to the Bay Area’s existential real estate crisis by charging an outrageous $40 per car for parking. The pro move for those coming from the North Bay or South Bay is to park for free at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station just one stop north of the coliseum and ride there and back for $7 round trip, with pregame craft beers available right across the street at the Ale Industries taproom.

Metric delivers a decent opening set, but it’s tough to be the opener in an arena setting where people are reluctant to be roused from their seats, even when singer Emily Haines and the band are rocking out similar to how they did in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It was Metric’s “Black Sheep” that served as a soundtrack for the electrifying scene where Pilgrim’s ex-girlfriend’s band rocks a Toronto nightclub, but the song is sadly left out of tonight’s set which is too bad since it might have inspired the tech bro crowd actually to rock out.)

The Smashing Pumpkins set oddly starts off in a somber manner with Corgan delivering a solo acoustic rendition of “Disarm”. But then he’s joined by the band for some vintage rocking on early Pumpkins classics “Rocket”, “Siva”, and “Rhinoceros”. There’s a strange vibe here in Oakland though as a majority of the crowd stays seated during this triple shot of classic grunge power as if they’re watching a movie. There’s certainly an element of mesmerizing arena rock spectacle, but Pumpkins shows have long been known for the rocking crowd they bring out, so this scene in 2018 is strange days indeed.

A cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” seems to fit the mood, but it’s the classic “Drown” that takes the show to the next level. For many West Coasters, the majestic tune from 1992’s Singles soundtrack was their introduction to the Smashing Pumpkins’ unique blend of rock power and psychedelic ambiance. Many remain seated, but those who came to rock are grooving out here, and the band takes the song for a splendid ride. Corgan’s mastery of psychedelic guitar feedback in “Drown” rightfully belonged on an album of Seattle grunge bands that also included a Jimi Hendrix song and that talent is on display again here. The Pumpkins inclusion on the Singles soundtrack also symbolized how “grunge” wasn’t necessarily exclusive to Seattle, something the band would prove out with their masterpiece Siamese Dream album in 1993 that features arguably the greatest grunge guitar tone of all time.

The ever electrifying “Zero” keeps things rocking with one of the hardest hitting tunes of the ’90s and some excellent light show psychedelia to boost the vibe as well. “Stand Inside Your Love” stands out in a different kind of way, a melodic major key gem that rocks with an uplifting vibe. But while a Smashing Pumpkins show used to be all about rock power from start to finish, tonight’s monster-sized three-hour set contains plenty of slower ambient interludes. Sometimes it works such as with the endearing melodicism of “Thirty-Three” or with Iha on lead vocal for the charming deep cut “Blew Away”, but other tunes like “For Martha” and “To Sheila” fall a bit flat and hurt the show’s momentum.

The beloved grunge goodness of “Mayonaise” gets the show back on track, with Corgan and Iha riffing out while Schroeder plays acoustic guitar to bring out all the song’s multi-dimensional elements. The epic “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” from the 1995 double album magnum opus Mellancollie & the Infinite Sadness is a surprise number due to its length and seems to be over the head of many, but the tune is quintessential Smashing Pumpkins, and the band crushes it with a sonic force to be reckoned with as Chamberlin and Bates show their power as a rhythm section. Covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” show off Corgan’s unique diversity, as the middle portion of the show surges with emotion and more grunge majesty on “Tonight Tonight” and the seminal “Cherub Rock”. “Tonight Tonight” isn’t really so grunge per se, but the uplifting tune generates a tangible euphoria as it transports the audience back to a more innocent time while the scintillating “Cherub Rock” finally gets most of the crowd out of their seats since it’s one of the most incendiary songs in rock history.

Vaudeville-style interludes featuring taped segments of Mark McGrath as a cheesy carnival barker fail to connect, and Corgan would do well to check out U2’s current tour for cinematic segments that work so much better to entertain the audience while giving the band a breather. But you’ve still got to hand it to Corgan for putting together a three-hour show, rivaled in the current arena rock pantheon only by other elite ’90s rockers like the Foo Fighters and Phish.

“1979” conjures some more of that vintage arena rock euphoria to get the audience moving with one of the biggest hits of the ’90s and “Ava Adore” rocks with a harder edged industrial sound. But the puzzling inclusion of “The Beginning Is the End is the Beginning” sucks the all the energy out of the arena with perhaps the show’s poorest placement. The band rebounds strongly though with the epic rock power of “Hummer” for a pinnacle moment that launches the show into the climactic stretch run. The song is essential Smashing Pumpkins with a deep groove and sizzling guitars that build into a series of hard rocking crescendos for a sonic journey that illustrates a masterful songwriting style of which Corgan remains the reigning world champion.

The melodic catharsis of “Today” continues to win hearts and minds as does the hard rocking vengeance of ‘Bullet with the Butterfly Wings” to bring the set to a truly smashing conclusion. Corgan then confesses that he’s been suffering through the evening with food poisoning, making the length of the set all the more admirable. The band forgoes walking off stage before the encore and launches right into the triumphant rocker “Muzzle”, one of the underrated deep cuts from the Mellancollie to end the evening.

Some attendees suggest the set was too long and one could argue that the show might be more impactful in the two-and-a-half-hour range. But getting to hear more songs is almost always better, and Corgan has been one of Generation X’s most prolific songwriters with plenty of killer deep cuts to spare. But the bottom line is that it’s great to have the Smashing Pumpkins back on tour and fans can only hope that Corgan will keep this lineup together for the long haul.