Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Every year it seems there’s one, big, marquee rock reunion that looms large over the summer concert calendar. Last year it was the punk band Jawbreaker, the year before that it was the Misfits with Glenn Danzig back in the fold. The year before that it was the Pacific Northwest group Sleater-Kinney. This year, it’s Smashing Pumpkins’ turn to assume the reunion mantle. The Billy Corgan-led outfit re-enlisted guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain for a new round of recording sessions for an as-yet-untitled album, and an extensive live run across North America.
Of course, because this is Smashing Pumpkins, it couldn’t be as simple as a press release and tightly controlled media campaign designed to whip up intense enthusiasm among casual listeners who maybe hadn’t thought about the Pumpkins since the days of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. The whole endeavor was fraught from the outset thanks to a series of public disagreements between Corgan and former bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, centering around questions the frontman had about her ability to perform live on an extended tour. Ultimately, she was left out, which left a bad taste in some fans mouths.
Still, whatever misgivings some had about the renewed Pumpkins, I was personally excited. Even more so after reading Uproxx Deputy Music Editor Phil Cosores’ review of the band’s kickoff show in Phoenix, Arizona from a month ago. I also knew from seeing Corgan’s solo Ogilala tour last year that the effects of time had done nothing to diminish either his voice or his ability to play an instrument. Having never witnessed Smashing Pumpkins live in my life, I felt like I had to catch this run for myself, and where better in the world than the band’s hometown in Chicago?
Wherever else in the world Smashing Pumpkins’s popularity may have waned since the height of their popularity in the mid-1990s, there’s still a tremendous amount of love for the band in the Windy City. There have been reports of soft ticket sales perhaps in some other markets, but let me tell you, the United Center, a 23,000 seat arena, was packed to the rafters with fans who seemed to know every single song that Billy and company threw at them. “Last time we played this building was about 2000 so it means a lot for us to be back with you,” Corgan told the crowd near the end of the show. It meant a lot to us too.
With all of that in mind, here are 30 things I loved about Smashing Pumpkins reunion show in Chicago.
1. That the show began with Billy Corgan emerging by himself from the middle of a pair of floating screens, strumming an acoustic guitar and playing “Disarm,” while a montage of shots of him as a boy flitted in and out of view behind him. This is a Smashing Pumpkins show, but it’s important to never forget who’s the boss.
2. That “Disarm” was the first of 31 different songs that the band would perform over the next three hours and 10 minutes.
3. The person behind me who actually asked, “Why is Billy so sad?” after he finished playing “Disarm” and the rest of the band emerged to launch into “Rocket.”
4. James Iha’s entire aesthetic. The guy might actually have the best hair in all of rock and roll.
5. Billy Corgan’s very shiny, silver boots and half-skirt.
6. That the band actually edited or cropped D’Arcy out of every single piece of archival footage they showed throughout the night. That is true petty goals.
7. When Billy donned a glittering, hooded cape and belted out David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on top of a dual-sided staircase with his back to the crowd.
8. The Mark McGrath vignettes where he’s dressed up like a 1950s carnival barker spewing absolute and utter nonsense in between a couple of songs. I literally could not tell you why Mark McGrath was tapped for this duty, or what the hell he was going on about, but I was captivated.
9. The devastating ferocity of “Zero.” Everyone has their favorite Pumpkins song, and this one is mine. That opening guitar riff ripped through my heart like a chainsaw.
10. That James Iha addressed the crowd before Billy. “Chicago! Sweet home Chicago, how are you? What can I say? We grew up here and now we’re rocking here.”
11. That Iha was actually tasked with most of the crowd interaction duties. Much later in the show, Billy confessed, “It’s better when I don’t talk.”
12. When they played “Eye” and Billy sang with his arm wrapped around Iha’s shoulder. Smashing Pumpkins isn’t a band known for the fuzzy feelings between the different members, and this subtle display of affection was actually pretty endearing.
13. The entire art deco theme that extended from the stage design to the merch. The place looked like a set piece from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Metropolis.
14. When Billy changed into a skeleton t-shirt and the band ripped into “Mayonnaise.” Is “Mayonnaise” quietly the best song on Siamese Dream? Hmmm.
15. When James referred to “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans,” as a “psychedelic journey of the mind.”
16. The shredding, my God, the shredding! With the guitar duties spread out between Corgan, Iha, and longtime touring member Jeff Schroeder, the stacks and stacks of guitars and solo parts are enough to send any six-string enthusiast into a state of nirvana. No ’90s alt-rock pun intended.
17. That in a three-hour long show, packed with every conceivable hit in their discography, the band still took time to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.”
18. That Billy Corgan remembered to ask “does anybody remember laughter,” Robert Plant’s ad-lib to “Stairway” which he threw in during the band’s live shows in the ’70s.
19. That after playing “Stairway To Heaven,” Iha said, “Smashing Pumpkins. Stairway To Heaven. It all makes sense,” when it extremely didn’t.
20. That they had an onstage debate about where to get the best deep dish pizza. The matter was never resolved, but the answer is obviously Pequods.
21. When Billy, a born-and-bred Chicagoan made fun of James from being from Elk Grove Village in the Northwest Suburbs and Jimmy Chamberlain for being from Joliet.
22. When Billy let the crowd sing the line, “And the embers never fade / In your city by the lake” during “Tonight, Tonight.” (They sang the hell out of it, too.)
23. When Billy dedicated the song “Try, Try, Try” to his mom.
24. The increasingly odd and sometimes unsettling graphics put together by Corgan’s frequent collaborator Linda Strawberry.
25. The rest of the band, including keyboardist player and backup vocalist Katie Nelson and D’Arcy’s stand-in Jack Bates, who did a pretty incredible job approximating much of the material and getting it as close to how it sounds on record.
26. The fact that drummer Jimmy Chamberlain looks like he can kick your ass.
27. That they played “Today” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” back-to-back near the very end of the show. You would’ve thought the roof would’ve come off the place.
28. When Billy chided the people making their way to the exits just before the encore, saying they reminded him of the fans who left Wrigley Field early the day before when the Cubs pulled out a win.
29. That for the encore they played both their newest single “Solara” and the ukulele ballad “Baby Mine,” rather than some well-known hit. When it was over, Billy walked off without stopping to saying goodbye.
30. That playing two nights at the United Center in front of their hometown really seemed to mean something to the band. “Amazing history in this building with the great legacies of the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls,” Corgan wrote on Instagram the day after the first show. “Proud to etch our name on the glass here once more.”