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The Smashing Pumpkins didn’t give fans much to complain about last night at the 9:30 Club. At no point did frontman Billy Corgan emerge dressed like a celestial Jesus. Nor did he inflict his band’s new material on the sold-out room in increments greater than two songs in a row. Nor did he clear the stage of bandmates for an ill-advised acoustic set.
The set was massive—-more than 20 songs stretched over more than two hours—-but it wasn’t, like just about every other Smashing Pumpkins outing since at least the late-’90s, grandiose. Corgan wore black jeans, a black long-sleeve T-shirt, and a straight face. The songs were drawn heavily from the band’s early albums, which came out when the other three current Pumpkins were between the ages of 2 and 13. Banter was minimal.
It was probably the most satisfying the band has been in years. And also, I think, the saddest.
“Starla” melted into familiar puddles of feedback. “Muzzle” roared with bottled angst. “Silverfuck” even included its traditional rant—-but instead of spouting arty meaninglessness, Corgan tried to recite “Peter Piper.” “Geek U.S.A.” sounded much like it did in 1993; “Cherub Rock” sounded like it’s been sounding in my head since I was 11.
The Smashing Pumpkins were my first Important Band, before I graduated to other Important Bands. One thing I appreciated about Corgan & Co. was their constant reinvention. Smashing Pumpkins rarely played their old material reverently; live, they adapted it to whatever aesthetic they were then plumbing.
Unlike the other alt-rock heavyweights of the 1990s, The Smashing Pumpkins cycled through sound after sound—-and then broke up, and then came back and tried something newish again. The Pumpkins were once a starter band not unlike how Pearl Jam was a starter band—-an essential touch point for middle-school outcasts c. 1991-1998—-but where Pearl Jam made boring, risk-free albums in the 2000s and preserved its ’90s legacy (see the current fanfare for PJ’s 20th anniversary), The Smashing Pumpkins made bad and pretentious decisions packaged as epic rock ‘n’ roll. They chipped away at their place in history by trying to change and doing it poorly. Yet while Corgan made plenty of confounding choices, you could never say he didn’t have integrity.
While there was a good reason for The Smashing Pumpkins to play deep cuts from the early ’90s last night—-forthcoming reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream—-and while I was grateful for it, it was a bit of a letdown to see the band play for nostalgia. Even the new material—-drawn from the band’s ongoing 44-song cycle Teargarden by Kaleidyscope—-in large part filled the same vein as the Pumpkins’ mid-’90s anthems, sans the obvious-sounding but truly elusive hooks that songwriters only seem capable of penning when they’re in their 20s. It was safe but rousing, and a lot easier to stand through than the band’s more spectacular failures.
This is what the band should do: Write more songs like “Owata,” which last night recalled the kind of off-kilter astral country songs (“Glynis,” “Meladori Magpie”) that the Pumpkins wrote every once in a while but never doubled down on. If they’d gone down that path years ago, we could’ve been spared Machina. And I wouldn’t have to regret apologizing for it at the time.
And the Pumpkins, in 2011, shouldn’t apologize for changing after 1996. If I had the choice, I’d keep the Pumpkins weird.