I vividly remember the first time I saw The Smashing Pumpkins. My best friend and I arrived at the venue–Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore–at 1 or 2pm. Doors didn’t open until 6, and I don’t think the band went on until 9. We arrived so early because, on that tour, the band was letting the first 20 people in line into their soundcheck. My friend and I were 14 and 15. We got to watch the band soundcheck, where they played some new stuff and one old song (“Tristessa”). Billy Corgan also answered a few fan questions. For someone like me–The Smashing Pumpkins were my favorite band, and really the first band I had ever gotten deeply, completely invested in–this was incredibly cool. I guess that about encapsulates my Smashing Pumpkins fandom–I was willing to wait a good 5 or so hours to watch a band in the middle of a maligned reunion soundcheck a bunch of relatively mediocre new tracks.
So, of course I went to see The Pumpkins play at Agganis Arena on Saturday. I got there late–blame the T and my inability to organize anything–but I got there. And it was a very good show. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, the band spent the first half of the show playing all of their new album, Oceania, front-to-back. Thanks to my lateness, I missed all of the first song, but I did get to hear the rest. It’s a bold, some might say stupid, move to open a show with 60 plus minutes of new music, but I think it paid off. The album held up live, and the crowd, to their infinite credit, didn’t seem to lose interest.
Corgan himself seemed to be having a wonderful time. This was easily the most humble and relaxed Billy Corgan I’ve ever seen live. He interacted with the crowd, joked (“This may surprise you, but this next song is a sad song. We have a litany of sad songs.”), talked baseball, and generally approached the whole show with the utmost sincerity. It was incredibly refreshing to see, and made the entire experience that much better.
The rest of the band deserves mention as well. Much of the chatter about this reunion has been dedicated to discussing the merit of a reunion with just one original member. Most of the defenders have focused on the idea that this has always been Corgan’s band, an argument that has a fair amount of merit. All that being said, the three people that Corgan has assembled are probably the best lineup the band has had since Jimmy Chamberlin was kicked out of of the group in the mid 90’s. Nicole Fiorentino is probably the best bassist the Pumpkins have ever had (with apologies to D’arcy Wretzky), and Jeff Schroeder is a great guitarist (his solo during “Ava Adore” being a particular highlight). New drummer Mike Byrne will never fill the void left by Chamberlin, but he’s a fine a replacement, and his performances on the band’s classics (particularly “Tonight, Tonight” and “Cherub Rock”) were fantastic.
Speaking of the classics, the band indeed spent the latter half of the show diving into the vaults. They played most of the hits (“1979″ being the only notable absence), and a few deep cuts, including “X.Y.U” from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, an odd choice that nonetheless produced a great performance. The crowd itself seemed pretty enthusiastic, though I heard a few grumbles about the Oceania performance while I was leaving and the Arena was nowhere near full. The entire back section was tarped off, and most of the side sections weren’t completely full. The floor, where I was, appeared to be totally sold out.
This is the third time I’ve seen the Smashing Pumpkins and, performance wise, it was probably the best. What I’ve seen over these three shows has been a band finally coming into its own as a cohesive unit. This show did not feel like a money grab, it felt natural and enjoyable. No, the 2012 Smashing Pumpkins will never be as good as the Gish through Adore Smashing Pumpkins, but they are a very good replacement.