Wednesday’s Smashing Pumpkins’ concert at Ovens Auditorium may have not been what some fans expected of the alternative rock band who started its career with blazing psych-rock and ventured into metal, industrial and hard rock over the years. Instead the focus of the band’s Plainsong Tour was often on Billy Corgan’s songwriting, stripping songs like the symphonic pop radio hit “Tonight Tonight” down to its bare bones with just Corgan and an acoustic guitar.
The same was true of opening act Liz Phair, who ran through an all too brief career-spanning solo set with just her voice and guitar. A nervous performer in her early years, Phair’s grown at ease on stage. Her voice was near perfect. She hit the high notes repeatedly, for instance, during her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” She included two new songs in the set as well as “Exile in Guyville” gems “F*** and Run” and “Divorce Song.” Later singles “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I” were boiled down to their simplest, truest form sans the recorded version’s pop production. She sounded great and looked nowhere near 49.
Corgan performed the first four songs of the Pumpkins’ set solo before a beautifully painted backdrop of blooming trees. He and Phair armed with just a guitar reminded me of how most of us start playing music – learning chords and covering other artists’ songs on an acoustic, which gives way to writing original songs in that same way. It’s a format I’m sure some of the audience could identify with and gives a bit of insight into the original form of the songs.
Guitarist Jeff Schroeder joined Corgan for a worthy rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Corgan’s voice is a good match for early Bowie and Schroeder added a flamenco-style spin to the guitar solos. Phair appeared again to sing backup on “Thirty-three.” The other band members, which included original Pumpkins’ drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, Schroeder, and new-ish touring members Katie Cole and Sierra Swan, came and went when needed.
His other band, Zwan’s “Jesus I” and “Mary Star of the Sea” gave way to what Corgan called the “Siamese Suite,” which he said, “Shuts up fans still waiting for the Smashing Pumpkins to come on stage.”
“You know,” he continued with a smile. “I actually wrote some of these songs. And I was in the room when they were recorded.”
It was one of a few self-aware asides he threw out to a sometimes inconsiderate crowd that shouted “Bring back (original members) Darcy and James” and “It’s not very rock n’ roll Billy!” during what was intended to be a quiet, rather intimate affair in contrast to the Pumpkins at Ovens in 2008. That jammy set bordered on metal. It had the crowd on its feet, but didn’t sound nearly as good as Wednesday’s concert.
“Mayonnaise” and a solo organ rendition of “Disarm” that wasn’t much like the recorded version, bookended the portion of the show dedicated to fan favorite, “Siamese Dream.” The changing backdrops and lights enhanced the mood. In fact the light patterns later in the show were innovative in their striking simplicity, illustrating everything doesn’t need to be centered and spotlights.
As relaxed and low-key as the performance was, it showcased a variety of styles from Schroeder’s subtle flamenco and Japanese guitar work to Chamberlain’s jazzy drumming to the more electronic, drum machine-based “Eye” (from the “Lost Highway” soundtrack) and the witchy “Saturnine.”
“1979” drew the crowd to its feet before Corgan turned crooner, dancing and belting songs without his guitar. He let bassist Cole take over lead vocals for “Malibu,” a song he wrote with Courtney Love for Hole’s third album. Her voice added a touch of country to the Southern California vibe. It was one of the night’s lighter moments, although listening to sexist arm chair critics in the crowd debate Cole’s abilities given how “hot” she is set off a debate in my head about the decade that birthed the Pumpkins.
While alternative music gave outsiders a voice in the `80s and gave way to bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins whose mainstream success yanked alt-rock out of the shadows in the `90s, it also associated those acts with bands that fostered a more misogynist bro mentality. That sector of fans obviously hungered for a heavier set Wednesday, but Corgan rose above the critics and his own desire to confront. When one fan yelled a request for a song he’d already played, Corgan smiled, feigned meditation, and admitted: “Old school me would’ve said something.”
The crowd may have tested him, but he stuck to his guns. The anthemic closer “The Spaniards” came closest to giving them what they wanted – a big, rocking finale. But he abruptly followed it with one of the Rolling Stones’ quieter moments, “Angie.”