Is an artist’s current, creative self less valuable than the version of himself that played in a band which sold millions of records and undeniably shaped the sound of a genre for the rest of all time? Most outfits won’t ever have the chance to even ponder the possibility of having to answer that question, but the Smashing Pumpkins are doing it every night on the band’s recently extended tour of North American arenas.
On Wednesday night, in front of 8,000 fans at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, frontman Billy Corgan — flanked by guitarist Jeff Schroeder, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — answered the question with a loud, clear, shiny and bright 29-song set which stretched three hours and reached all the way back to the opening minutes of its 1991 debut Gish (“Siva”) but not much further than the midpoint of the Pumpkins’ 2000 pseudo-prog album Machina/The Machines of God. Nearly every moment was pristine, too.
From the opening, acoustic strums on set opener “Disarm” — which Corgan, still youthful and towering at 51 years old, performed solo — to the last oddly-not-campy breaths of an encore-ending cover of Betty Noyes’ “Baby Mine,” the Pumpkins fully transported fans to an era when the first Bush was in office and Jose Canseco was purportedly dating Madonna. Were there pee-break songs? For sure, but who really expects that demo (a homogenous mix of aging Gen-X-ers and early-to-mid-30s millennials peppered with the occasional teen) to hold it in for that long?
The elephant in the room — and in presumably every venue Corgan & Co. play on this tour — is the absence of bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who was a fixture of Pumpkins lineups that did not play on, but did tour behind, Gish, Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Adore. Wretzky, now 50, may or may not have been formally invited on this reunion tour (and the dramatic dispute is vaguely intriguing at best and just pitiful at its worst), but she was always a mysterious figure. The band hasn’t seen her for the better part of a half-decade, but Wretzky was a totem for the female fans of '90s rock as the Pumpkins’ stature rose. Her presence in one of the most iconic bands of the time made her a Liz Phair-esque totem for women, and while current bassist Jack Bates (son of Peter Hook) more than held his own at Amalie, it was hard not to think of how it would’ve been great to see female fans rekindle a little of that mystique Wretzky brought to the lineup. A question that probably won’t ever be answered is whether or not Wretzky’s presence would’ve beefed up ticket sales in Tampa, where the arena was just north of halfway full.
Corgan — who, in the days after the Pumpkins' drop off, continued to reinvent himself with mixed results as part of bands like Zwan or on solo albums like The Future Embrace and last year’s Ogilala — didn’t seem to care or take notice of the attendance as he lurched around the stage during a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and an anthemic take on “Try, Try, Try.” The piano-driven “For Martha” played as magnificently melancholy as it ever was, and the same went for favorites like “Tonight, Tonight” and “1979.”
The real treat of the whole performance, however, was how big and bold so many of the more than 20-year-old songs still sounded in the hands of the Pumpkins. Corgan didn’t kill the signal as he tuned to drop-D in preparation for sprawling Mellon Collie track “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” and the tone was so clean that it sounded as if the arena was right there in the garage or studio with the band. Almost every solo took off, and at least a couple (“Siva,” “Somo”) completely soared. Iha’s gliding intro riff on “Rhinoceros” felt alive coming off his fingers, and the guitarist (easily the chattiest Pumpkin on Wednesday) even took the lead on “Blew Away.” The studio version of the “Disarm” B-side doesn’t feature Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, but the 54-year-old timekeeper made his presence felt throughout the entire night at Amalie.
Chamberlin obliterated his kit on Siamese Dream rager “Cherub Rock” and made his tom fills feel like the feet of giants on “Porcelain” (where Corgan and Iha stood facing each other as they ripped solos of their own). “Rocket” rollicked, and his attack on “Ava Adore” wore all of the doom and gloom that it did in the late '90s when the single nearly topped Billboard’s alternative songs charts.
That chart looks a lot different than it did when the Pumpkins were at the height of their career (Twenty One Pilots sits at the top of that chart today, which is ironic considering the fact that the same Tampa-based company — TNSN DVSN — is handling aesthetic elements for that band and the Pumpkins’ new comeback single, “Solara”). Corgan — who, in his non-musical life, has embarked on a number of head-scratching endeavors and rants — has never been afraid to admit that the release of Machina / Hand of God came at the same time as the arrivals of the Britney Spearses and boy bands that would eventually send the Pumpkins’ career into the sunset.
In a way, the Pumpkins’ Wednesday-night set in Tampa embodied that fade, too. Seeing just 8,000 fans in the building felt a little underwhelming, especially since the band put on such a robust show. In what felt like a symbolic move, most of the set’s backline (including keys manned by stellar multi-instrumentalist Katie Cole) was pulled away as the Pumpkins introduced the searing opening instrumental of Siamese Dream track “Hummer” which eventually bled into a poignant take on “Today.” That sing-along unfolded into a full arena freakout on a still-angsty “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” where Corgan, Iha and Schroeder once again joyously sounded like a band letting it rip in a basement practice session.
Corgan is readying the Pumpkins’ comeback album, and there’s really no telling how the record will be received by critics and an increasingly fickle collective of music fans with new music consumption methods and less and less time to get lost in albums. So we’ll have to wait to see if the Pumpkins can keep this comeback coming. But on this tour — even without the presence of Wretzky, whose presence was integral to the band during its rise — Corgan, Iha, Schroeder and Chamberlain have channeled their pasts and created a future that does, indeed, look shiny and oh so bright.
Look at some photos and the setlist below. Click here to stream a playlist featuring songs that Metric and the Smashing Pumpkins played at Amalie Arena.
Dressed to Suppress
Youth Without Youth
Gold Guns Girls
Now or Never Now
Help I’m Alive
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
The Everlasting Gaze
Stand Inside Your Love
Porcelina of the Vast Oceans
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
Try, Try, Try
The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Baby Mine (Betty Noyes)