Seeing a Smashing Pumpkins show in Chicago will never get old. There’s that special moment when Billy Corgan pauses on cue during “Tonight, Tonight” to let the crowd sing the part about “the city by the lake” at the top of their lungs. And then there’s endearing way the frontman always adds a new footnote about growing up in the city. On this particular night he took playful jabs at modern-day Wicker Park and joked about how his mother wanted to throw him in the lake right after she gave birth to him (he then dedicated the 2000-era cut “Try, Try, Try” to her).
While the Pumpkins found global fandom shortly after cutting their teeth at clubs like Metro and Avalon in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they’ve always held Chicago close to their chest. Even the newest member, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, has now moved here, Corgan announced at the United Center Monday night during the first of two hometown dates on the band’s Shiny And Oh So Bright Tour.
So it was a real head scratcher 10 days ago when the band held a special 30th anniversary show in Holmdel, New Jersey. Understandably, there was anticipation the Pumpkins would do something special in Chicago, too, but unless you count the odd processional of a Virgin Mary shrine throughout the rows of floor seats during a cover of “Stairway To Heaven,” there was little in the way of shocking on this night.
For anyone possibly holding out hope that original Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky would emerge from the shadows, it was quickly dashed as music video montages during the first few songs sadly edited out her parts as if she never existed. Though Wretzky’s absence made this tour come up short in terms of a true “reunion” as it’s being marketed (also for the fact that the Chicago Civic Opera House hosted a similar event in 2016), it was still incredibly fulfilling to see Corgan back with the sorely-missed guitarist James Iha and mastercraft drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The chemistry between the three remains nothing short of magnetic, seemingly picking up where they left off as they beautifully dissected the instrumentals on songs like “Siva” and the ballad “For Sheila.” Nearly every song offered an iconic opening guitar line or drum part, a reminder of their unparalleled songwriting collaborative.
Judging by the number of Gen X’ers wearing “Zero” T-shirts in the audience, the room was full of fans that had waited years to see the holy trinity together again, and the Smashing Pumpkins surpassed expectations with a massive and celebratory three-hour set that dove into the best material from “Gish,” “Siamese Dream,” “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” “Adore” and both “Machina” albums.
In fact, nothing past the year 2000 (when the band initially broke up) was played save for a gut-punch version of the new single “Solara,” which makes you only hope the threesome can keep the peace into the future — and also keep its supporting cast including keyboardist/backup vocalist Katie Nelson and Schroeder, whose voluminous third guitar added a whole other layer to the lush psychedelics on songs like “Rhinoceros.” Even Jack Bates, son of Joy Division/New Order’s Peter Hook, who has been filling in on bass, had crowning moments delivering the heavy lines on tracks like “The Everlasting Gaze.”
Graphics were also a memorable spectacle, handled by Linda Strawberry, a one-time bandmate and the creative eye behind the short film, “Pillbox” which accompanied Corgan’s 2017 solo album, “Ogilala.” Each song on this tour has been interpreted through short films, montages and animated pieces that stick to the Pumpkins’ familiar thematic go-to of 1920s vaudeville, religious paraphernalia and ancient mythology.
The most telling was the reel of grade school photos and vintage home videos from Corgan’s personal collection projected on large screens behind him as he opened the show with an emotional solo acoustic version of “Disarm.” It was, for a moment, a softer side of the singer whose personality sometimes overshadows the music. This night was not short of eyeroll moments, though, like when he changed the lyrics in “Ava Adore” to “perfect just like WPC” and chided fans for leaving towards the encore as the clock was nearing midnight, comparing them to Cubs fans. Spoken like a true Chicagoan.
Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)
The Everlasting Gaze
Stand Inside Your Love
Porcelina of the Vast Oceans
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin cover)
Try, Try, Try
The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Baby Mine (Betty Noyes cover)