The Smashing Pumpkins: Expect the Unexpected

Photo by Sophia Barkalakis

I’ve been a fan of The Smashing Pumpkins ever since their album Siamese Dream dropped in 1993. From there I discovered Gish and jumped on board for their next few albums and releases. I listened to that band for hundreds of hours in high school. In truth though, I really lost interest after the mega-hit double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That’s when the band started to go downhill in my opinion, the hits stopped churning out, and one-by-one the band members left the group for various reasons.

Photo by Mackenzie McAninch

Check out more photos from the show HERE.

Billy Corgan continued The Smashing Pumpkins train for many years with other musicians and he stood alone as the sole member of the band. While I saw the band once back in their hey-day in 1997, I never bothered to see them again after that until this past Saturday night at Key Arena in Seattle. This was their (mostly) reunited tour with original band members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin back in the band. Going into the show, I really didn’t know what to expect.

Below is a list of what I didn’t expect and a summary of what happened:

  • I didn’t expect a marathon. They played 32 songs in just over 3 hours and 15 minutes! There are not many bands who do that anymore, and they truly deserve praise for that stamina.
  • I didn’t expect to be grateful for chairs on the floor. When we walked in and saw that the floor had assigned chairs, I felt like it was kind of lame for a rock and roll show. About halfway through the 3+ hour show, I was super thankful for my chair. I need to accept and respect aging.
  • I didn’t expect covers of both “Stairway to Heaven” (with Corgan on piano) and “Space Oddity” but both were brilliant and they nailed them both. Yes, they covered “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, but they’ve been doing that for a couple of decades.
  • I didn’t expect being reminded just how many hits that band had. They just kept rolling them out one by one. If you haven’t looked at their catalog in a while, take some time to go back through it. That band created some fantastic music over the past 30 years.
  • I didn’t expect the show to get so boring in the middle of the set. James Iha sang “Blew Away” (Corgan left the stage) and it was the bathroom break/sit down moment. It was bad and it sucked all of the energy out of the room. Followed by “For Martha” and “To Sheila,” that was a rough part of the night.
  • I didn’t expect the band to rock as hard as they did on certain songs. They’re a bit older now and I wondered if they could still bring it on the hard rock songs. They absolutely did and they melted faces during “Cherub Rock,” “Zero” and “Siva.” I have to admit I was bummed out they didn’t play “Silverfuck,” which in my opinion is arguably their best song. Looking at setlists, it looks like they’re not playing it at all on this tour, which is disappointing. But hearing songs like “Rocket,” “Rhinoceros,” “Soma” and an acoustic version of “Disarm” were just a handful of many nostalgia-pleasing moments that brought me goose bumps at times.
  • I didn’t expect Billy Corgan to be so good on guitar! I never researched it much in the past but I had no idea that was Corgan who played most of those blistering solos from the early albums. I was completely impressed with him on guitar on Saturday. I also learned he’s a good piano player.
  • I didn’t expect the backup guitar player Jeff Schroeder to be so good either! I’d never heard of Schroeder before but he was an absolute shredder on guitar, even carrying the heavy load during the cover of “Stairway to Heaven.”
  • I didn’t expect James Iha to basically be the 3rd guitarist and mostly playing rhythm. Yes, Iha got a few short guitar solos in here and there, but not much. I always thought he was more of the lead guitar player in that band back in the day, but I guess not. It really makes me wonder if those Smashing Pumpkins shows the past 10-15 years without Iha were really missing much after all.
  • I didn’t expect Billy Corgan’s vocals to still be so spot-on. It seems he hasn’t lost a step. About the only thing missing were his blood curdling growls from his youth, but maybe he can’t do them anymore, or they simply aren’t needed anymore. Corgan is 51 now, and a father to a toddler.
  • I didn’t expect a 6-piece band nor for Jimmy Chamberlin to be so great on drums. He was an absolute monster. The band as a whole were a top-notch unit.
  • I didn’t expect such fantastic production. For almost every song, there was either a music video playing along on the screen or photos and artwork on display. Even the actors in the videos were often dressed in elaborate costumes depicting angels, ballerinas and about anything the mind can imagine. That had to have taken tons of time to create. And for the songs that did not have videos or artwork, the light show made up for it, making the scenes sometimes psychedelic, or at other times pure arsenal like during the ending of “Cherub Rock.” I lost count, but Corgan had at least 4 or 5 costume changes throughout the night.
  • I didn’t expect Billy Corgan to be as much of a narcissist as he actually is. Perhaps it was purely for art and I completely get the theatre aspect of it, but Corgan’s face appeared on the screen during almost every song, in the videos, photos and artwork. Sometimes it was Jesus with Corgan’s face replacing it. Other times he was Buddha. The theme of the night was often a prom queen/angel giving worship to a statue of Jesus but with Billy’s face and now-signature bald head. In fact, they even carted this statue out through the crowd during Stairway to Heaven. I get it that everything about the band is Billy Corgan, but it was a bit much.
  • I didn’t expect Billy Corgan to be as creepy as he was. He’s put on a bit of weight, so between that and the super bald head, he really is turning into Uncle Fester in appearance. Again, I know it was performance-art, but his makeup both onstage and especially in the videos and photos on the screen had dark eye shadow and exotic face paint designs a lot. My friend and I joked that he’s going to give people nightmares after performances. We weren’t kidding. The guy literally scares children.
  • I didn’t expect Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray to have speaking parts on the screen between songs once in a while. I also didn’t expect to learn the next day that he was Mark McGrath and not Seann William Scott (Stifler), as I thought at the show.
  • I didn’t expect the show to under-sell as much as it did. I believe I counted 12 sections in the upper levels that were closed but the sections below them were open. That means they didn’t sell. About two weeks before the show, roughly half of the floor tickets were still available for purchase. They had a huge stage production so I get needing a big venue (Key Arena holds 17,500), but I think a smaller venue like WAMU Theater (7,200) would have been more intimate and perfect. I’d be interested to know if the arenas in other cities sold out or not. I’ll bet not.
  • I didn’t expect “zero” to still be a thing, but apparently it is. We saw tons of people wearing the “zero” shirts that Corgan used to wear back in the 90’s and it’s something I pretty much forgot about. And that word was on display many times in the videos and photos on the screen during songs.
  • I didn’t expect Billy Corgan to make a joke about heroin….in Seattle. Towards the end of the night he mentioned how he’s been trying to be good and “keep my mouth shut and just play music.” He followed that up immediately by thanking the crowd, and thanking those who already left and went home early…to do heroin. Instantly he figured out that the comment was off-colored and he joked “See, I really just need to shut my mouth.” But it was already out there. Making a joke about going home to do heroin in a city that has lost many precious musicians to heroin, and family and friends too for that matter, just isn’t funny.
Photo by Sophia Barkalakis
Photo by Sophia Barkalakis

Lastly, I didn’t expect the show to be as good as it was. I was skeptical that this was just a cash-grab from an aging band and that they can’t bring it anymore. But last month I listened to Siamese Dream three times in a row on repeat during a road trip and fell back in love with that album, so I wanted to give Corgan and the crew a chance. I’m glad I did because this ended up being one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. Yes, Corgan is obsessed with himself and if you’ve read any of his interviews over the past few years, he’s apparently crazy. But sometimes the best artists have a bit of crazy and awkwardness and it’s a trade-off for what makes them so good at their craft. I gained a new respect for Billy Corgan and what he’s doing as a musician and performer.

Photo by Matt Senechal

If you were ever a casual fan of The Smashing Pumpkins then I strongly suggest going to see this re-united unit. And if you were or are a huge fan of the band at any point in their career, then this is a must-see. It’s a little bit expensive, but you’ll get your money’s worth.

Check out more photos from the show HERE.

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