Billy Corgan asked the question with the straightest face he could muster: "Are you ready to die for rock and roll?" It was the Smashing Pumpkins' first Bay Area concert in seven years, featuring a reconfigured lineup around the core of Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Two months before, tickets for the band's historic eleven-night stand at the Fillmore from July 15 through August 1 had sold out online in less than twenty minutes. Some fans without passes had waited since 5:30 that morning to get in. Yet not until the show's second hour, during a ten-minute medley of late-period material "Rock On" and "Heavy Metal Machine," did we grasp Corgan's meaning.
These big, dumb rock songs almost parodies of the self-aware glam and goth Corgan grew up on put such a grin on his face that we knew he was dead serious: about himself, about the Smashing Pumpkins, and about dying for rock and roll. But we weren't fifteen anymore. When the group finally wrapped up its three-hour show just past 1 a.m., we knew we had to be at work in the morning.
In fairness, Corgan has changed, too. Despite the dark mood of the Pumpkins' comeback album Zeitgeist, released July 10, he's not as angry or depressed as he once was. Singing Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage without a hint of a snarl both castrated the lyric and suggested Corgan has moved on to a happier place. Other things haven't changed a bit. As ever, Corgan was flanked on his right by a cute female bassist picking simple lines on a Fender P-Bass, and on his left by a stoic, slight-of-frame rhythm guitarist. That's too creepy to be a coincidence.
The meat of the evening played like a Smashing Pumpkins jukebox. Devoted fans were rewarded with blazing renditions of fuzzed-out album cuts like "Starla" and "Hummer," while the rest were ecstatic just to hear the opening notes of "Today." The performance wavered between thrilling and listless, as Top-40 singles mingled with ultra-rarities and previously unheard demos. Surprisingly, the set pulled lightly from Zeitgeist, with the band emerging to the political centerpiece "United States," plowing through metal singles "Tarantula" and "Doomsday Clock," and all but butchering pop standout "That's the Way (My Love Is)."
From the very beginning, the night was designed for serious fans. Cheap tickets and ultra-strict ticketing schematics attest to that. "It's a little tedious," said Live Nation San Francisco chairman Lee Smith of safeguards like eliminating in-and-out privileges and requiring customers to claim their tickets in person the night of the show. These practices were put in place for all eleven nights to prohibit scalping and ensure fan access. Indeed, a follower from the early days couldn't have been happier to watch Corgan from a few feet away and to sing along to so many songs for only $25. Others less inclined to cherish the frontman's every move may have considered the concert a sprawling mess.
But you gotta hand it to Corgan. Despite dissing his group early in the set ("Welcome to our band practice"), and passive-aggressively suggesting that only seven people had bought the new album, he did his best to make it a memorable night. Mostly he let his music do the talking. Throughout three hours he never left the stage, except for a brief break before the Pumpkins' baffling, unrecognizable half-hour encore. When his band departed mid-set for a rest, Corgan stayed behind to do four acoustic songs. Later, after he was finally warmed up, he issued some severe screams and slick solos that recalled his brilliant apex as an alt-rock icon.
The Smashing Pumpkins are back, but stuck banking on the past to propel them into the future. If Corgan is to achieve relevance beyond his hardcore fanbase, he still must win over a skeptical public. On Sunday, there was no escaping that these are different times. Not a faded old Zero T-shirt was in sight.
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