The Smashing Pumpkins are not a band that smiles often. And I’m not just talking about when Billy Corgan rides a roller coaster (although he did return to Disneyland this week and showed off some joy while making playful jabs at his previous viral moment). When the Smashing Pumpkins are onstage, it’s a show full of technical chops, complex emotions, and overwhelming sensory blasts. The effect of these is often elation, but they come from places of angst, anger, longing, and wonder. Unabashed joy coming from the stage would feel almost out of place.
But when Billy Corgan cracked his first smile towards the end of the band’s first proper reunion show at the Troubadour on June 27, as he extended his solo to mindbending places on “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans,” it became infectious. Quickly, Jeff Schroeder and James Iha — playing his first full set with the band in 18 years — shared knowing glances and unveiled massive grins as well, both a little bewildered by where Corgan was taking the song, and with the relief that comes in nearly completing a performance that was nearly two decades in the making. But more than anything, the smiles let the audience know that the band was indeed having fun. That playing these old songs with old friends went beyond just a paycheck and a check off the to-do list. It was at that moment that made the reunion felt real and vital, and the internet critiques and internal squabbles fell away. This was really happening, and it actually was pretty awesome.
Last night, the Smashing Pumpkins debuted the full arena show in Glendale, Arizona. Even in just the couple weeks since the Los Angeles warm-up concert, things had changed in the band, including adding a sixth member in keyboardist Katie Cole. But the blueprint for the Shiny And Oh So Bright Tour had been laid long in advance. The concert would focus on music from the band’s classic ’90s era, but would also fold in new material written specifically for this iteration, including the recently debuted barnburner “Solara.” Longtime bassist D’arcy Wretzky wouldn’t be involved, much to the chagrin of her and a vocal portion of the band’s longtime fans. James Iha, though, would be back, along with Jimmy Chamberlin on the drums, giving Billy Corgan a backing band that is sneaky in its technical mastery.
A decade ago, and this would have been the kind of excursion that would debut at Coachella, but the festival landscape has shifted so much that the Smashing Pumpkins have become a kind of legacy act that is not at home performing on the same stages as SZA and Diplo. So instead, fans get the Pumpkins in arenas, swelled to six members, and featuring the biggest stage production of their career. Fans get to see Corgan endure more costume changes than a Taylor Swift concert, and get to experience covers from the iconic (Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”) to the unexpected (David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) or the indulgent (a version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” that was paired with a bunch of dudes dressed as monks wheeling a Corgan relic around the arena). If the band was trying to prove that doing the reunion at this scale was the only way to properly pay homage to their history, then they spared no expense and took the time to do just that.
So it is with a little irony that the most successful moments of the set were the parts that found the band playing old songs faithfully without much need for over-the-top theatrics. For much of the band’s creative peak, this was who the band was, the kind of ’90s alt-rock icons that could get sweaty in a small club and blow the minds of their fans through their technical prowess and songwriting craft. It was only after the success of 1995’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness that the group began exploring a more ambitious visual aesthetic, and both iterations of the band very much existed side by side on Thursday night. Surely there are some fans out there who are just as interested in hearing the rarely played classics like “Drown” or “Soma” performed faithfully and also witness moving set pieces and between-song video speeches from a character that looked a lot like Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath. But mostly it felt like two different bands were playing creative tug-o-war, and it just comes down to personal preference which one was preferred.
Still, the three-hour set had to exceed most people’s wildest expectations. There were moments of pure bliss throughout the audience, be it more well-known endeavors like a ferocious “Cherub Rock” or deeper cuts like the best Smashing Pumpkins song ever written “Mayonaise.” Songs that found the band getting quieter also went over particularly well, like the tender “Thirty-Three” which saw lyrics projected so fans could sing along, or the Iha-fronted “Blew Away” that gave the adored guitarist a chance to take the spotlight. And the band is not light on hits, with everything from “Zero” to “1979” to “Tonight Tonight” to “Eye” going over splendidly. Three hours is a really long concert, though, and some of the fat could be trimmed — a couple of the aforementioned covers, a Corgan-at-piano run that included “For Martha” and “To Sheila” that felt like a seriously lull — but its hard to get to down on a band for giving its fans their money’s worth. And with tickets in some markets struggling to move, a look at this massive setlist might be the best way to get that ball rolling.