On Sunday night, The Smashing Pumpkins returned to Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater for the second time in just under a year. However, prior to these last two shows, it had been over a decade since the Pumpkins had played Milwaukee. Possibly making up for lost time? Despite the proximity in concert dates, Billy Corgan and company brought very different sets to the two shows. The 2011 performance highlighted a number of deep cuts, including a rather heavy focus on the 1994 B-side album, Pisces Iscariot, as well as songs from then, upcoming Oceania. When I attended the concert last year, it was my first Pumpkins show ever (and considering the interval of time between Milwaukee shows, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one). And honestly, as a lifelong fan, it was exciting just to be in the same room as Billy Corgan. Yes, it would have been great to hear him play all my favorite songs, but out of respect to everything he’s done, I was content with what he decided to play that night. It’s no secret that in the last several years Corgan has grown out of favor with some fans and media outlets alike. But, ultimately, the man can still rock; so can we just listen for a night?
The Sunday Milwaukee show was one of three intimate warm-up shows the band performed during the week between their Mexico and Canada dates, and before embarking across the United States. So it was basically an arena tour being played in a theater. Prior to the tour, it was declared that the set would be broken into two parts: the first half would be the band’s 2012 Oceania album played in its entirety, and the second half would consist of classic Smashing Pumpkins songs.
The night opened with Chicago rock band, Madina Lake. They brought a lot of energy, and in hindsight, their punk pop songs were somewhat refreshing, prior to the Pumpkins delving full force into the Oceania album. However, despite all this, I will forever remember Madina Lake as the opening band that brought more stage bling than the actual headliner. They played in front of two, light bulb encrusted, Las Vegas style signs that spelled out their band name. Think Kiss Sign. It was pretty stylish and cool, but a curious stage prop for an opening band. The Pumpkins are set to debut a new technology, luminous set design during their arena shows, but the production wasn’t capable of fitting in the warm-up shows, thus the Pumpkins played in front of a black curtain. Possibly Madina Lake didn’t get that memo; or, maybe they spent so much on the sign, they feel indebted to bring it–everywhere.
I know some Smashing Pumpkins fans went into this tour thinking: If we can stomach the first hour of Oceania, then we can hear “Tonight, Tonight.” And some fans were content with that arrangement. But in reality, the Oceania performance was maybe my favorite part of the night. It’s actually, an impressive new album. If you were a fan of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you should check out Oceania, because I think it will resonate with what made you like The Smashing Pumpkins in the first place.
I was glad to see fans in the crowd getting into early Oceania highlights, “The Celestials” and “Violent Rays.” Both contain beautiful Pumpkins-esque melodies, and are great starting points for first listens of Oceania. Title song “Oceania” is an epic “Stairway to Heaven” of a tune, and Corgan delivered it with heavy concentration. He then brought the energy into a lively rendition of the wonderful “Pale Horse.”
In both times I’ve seen the band, I’ve noticed they usually start the show in sort of an “all business” mentality. Corgan usually saves his crowd interactions towards the latter half of the show (he would joke later in the night about the Packers/Bears rivalry). Other current bandmates, guitarist Jeff Schroeder and bassist Nicole Fiorentino, rarely speak and keep the focus on their instruments. 22-year old drummer Michael Byrne, on the other hand, is a blast to watch. He seems like he is having the time of his life sitting behind his massive drum set, playing for a band that was founded before he was born. And he’s a master at his craft. As are all the new Pumpkins, they play incredibly tight, and you have to give Corgan credit for putting the new band together.
Corgan began showing signs of a smile during “The Chimera” as his guitar noticeably came alive. I honestly can’t think of any musician that appears more at home doing a guitar power stance. At times, he makes it look as effortless as eating cereal. “Wildflower” closed out Oceania, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Byrne pop out from behind the drum set, and work some keys while singing backing vocals on the track.
A cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” brought the band out of Oceania mode. I imagine playing a complete album live does have its daunting moments. So Corgan appeared to choose a track he could have fun with, and celebrate the beginning of the second half of the show. And from there, Corgan delivered on his promise of classic hits. “Disarm,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” got the crowd unanimously excited. “Disarm” specifically gave me a few chills, as I used to play that song a lot on my Discman. And looking around at the crowd, I could tell other people were having those moments as well. Yes, musical tastes change, trends get outdated, bands breakup; but the songs and the memories tied to them, those will always be there.
The Pumpkins rounded out the set with other favorites, “Zero,” Ava Adore,” and “Today.” The Dirty Projectors, who were playing a few blocks away at the Pabst Theater that night, showed up around this point, and could be seen enjoying the rest of the concert from the balcony.
After a prolonged break before the encore, Billy Corgan and his band reemerged with “Thirty-Three” a song Corgan dedicated on stage to late Frogs founding member Dennis Flemion. He reminded the crowd that The Frogs were a Milwaukee band, and definitely worth checking out on Youtube. Next was “Gossamer” which seemed a little dragged out for an encore slot but some fans were definitely feeling the epic, live tour de force. The set list also showed a song called “BlackSunshine” grouped with “Gossamer” but I couldn’t recall if something extra was played, as I’ve only heard “Gossamer” maybe once or twice all the way through. Siamese Dream gem “Mayonnaise” closed out the show, ending nearly two and a half hours of Smashing Pumpkins music. Most concertgoers near me were in awe of how much time had passed during the jam-packed, fulfilling live show.
In both times I saw the Pumpkins, Corgan and the band did not exit the stage right after the encore. Instead, they came up to the front of the audience and gave away guitar picks and drum sticks, warmly thanking the fans for coming out.
It’s unfortunate that Corgan and the new The Smashing Pumpkins are still getting a bad rap from some people. Because at the end of the day, they are great live band, with an unbelievable back catalog, touring behind a very solid new album. Maybe it’s time to give Billy Corgan a break, or at least, give the new album a listen.