The original Smashing Pumpkins were not able to reform in 2018, so Billy Corgan and company gave fans something worth remembering: a well-crafted three-hour, 31-song marathon walk down memory lane.
After people found their seats to the sounds of Metric, the Great Pumpkin came out alone just shy of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Backed by a stage and light setup that looked like the classic film Metropolis, the presentation was retro with a futuristic bent. There had been reports of initially soft ticket sales in many of the markets outside of Chicago, but the AAC was almost filled to the brim with fans. (The upper nosebleed section was closed off.)
Starting off with “Disarm,” accompanied by pictures and home movies of his preteen life on the screen behind him, Corgan was front and center. As much as he is painted as a well-spoken band leader with a Svengali-like control, this version of the Pumpkins is more of a band than a hired gun situation.
Long-absent original guitarist James Iha has returned, joining drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and Iha’s replacement, Jeff Schroeder. To take over the spot vacated by bassist and vocalist D’arcy Wretzky, touring members Jack Bates on bass and Katie Cole on keyboards and backing vocals joined the band. Neither Bates nor Cole is a random person found off the street. Bates is the son of Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook and has played with the Pumpkins since 2015, and Cole is a respected singer-songwriter from Australia.
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The band’s retro visuals during “Rhinoceros” excised Wretzky (and her replacement, Melissa Auf der Maur) completely. Whether for legal reasons or petty reasons, there has been a lot of retconning in terms of Wretzky's importance to the band. Regardless of what Corgan says in the press and social media, she’ll always be a part of the original band that won the hearts of millions throughout the 1990s.
Although Iha said early in the night that the entire show would be feature material from the band’s extensive catalog, the group wisely avoided all material from the Iha-less albums Zeitgeist, Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy. Fourteen of the songs came from the band’s most popular albums, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They even played songs originally from movie soundtracks for Singles, Lost Highway and Batman & Robin. On top of that, they did interesting but ultimately unnecessary covers of “Space Oddity” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
The band has been known to significantly speed up songs for the live setting; however, for a show like this, it had to play them closer to how they were originally recorded. If it blazed through the first half, there would be zero energy for the final stretch.
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Corgan and his bandmates seemed comfortable onstage, barely taking a break before their two-song encore. They kept playing hit after hit and long-loved album cut after another. Chamberlin’s snare rolls and hi-hat accents are still on point, and Corgan and Iha’s guitar leads sounded as good as they’ve always been. Cole’s backing vocals were rich as she harmonized well with Corgan.
The pace of the set was executed well. While there were plenty of the hard-charging tunes, the band was not afraid to take the tone down with songs like “For Martha,” “To Sheila” and “Mayonaise” [sic].
Going for the arena-friendly route of familiar fan favorites might have seemed like resignation for Corgan, who reformed the band with changeable members almost 20 years ago, but Smashing Pumpkins faced that boogeyman and gave the longtime fans a strong reason to care again.
“The Everlasting Gaze”
“Stand Inside Your Love”
“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”
“Stairway to Heaven”
“Try, Try, Try”
“The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning”
“Bullet With Butterfly Wings”