Smashing Pumpkins Lean on Classics in L.A.
The band's '90s greats trump Billy Corgan's latest as Pumpkins kick off U.S. tour.
Quasar, /?kwâ?zär/, noun: 1. “A massive and extremely remote celestial object, emitting exceptionally large amounts of energy, and typically having a star-like image” (Google). 2. The name of the new song the Smashing Pumpkins opened with at their sold-out tour kickoff at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre. 3. Useful shorthand for describing Chicago alterna-rock legend Billy Corgan with (or without) his band.
Freeze frame on a moment about an hour into the group’s 20-odd-song set. They’ve just crushed a true-to-form resurrection of “Frail and Bedazzled” from 1994’s b-sides collection Pisces Iscariot, closing with a fierce guitar duel that careened from thrashing jags into blistering harmonics out to transcendent squeal. Jeff Schroeder’s head is down, facing his axe, but Corgan is leaning back with arms spread, looking like an angel of the apocalypse, staring at the rafters and soaking up the crowd’s terrific screams. Quasar.
There’s also a new Pumpkins song called “Quasar,” set to be the first track off the Pumpkins’ upcoming LP, Oceania, due out early next year, and it kicked off the four-piece’s monstrous Wednesday night set with a huge wall of satisfying psych-rock skronk. Careening bass courtesy of Nicole Fiorentino and percussive clang from drummer Mike Byrne (who, at 21, is only a year older than the band’s debut, Gish) pushed the song to its eventual end, a freewheeling hookless jam that ultimately felt like one big “yes.”
Other new ones fared well too — in particular “Panopticon” with its Tool-thick riffage and “Oceania,” a softer, bluer kind of Pumpkins song — but the biggest hits of the night were invariably the oldest. The band wisely left Machina (2000) and Zeitgeist (2007) out of the mix, heavily favoring anything that came before their biggest album, 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
The Gish pieces (“Window Paine,” “Siva,” “Suffer”) offered slow-burning psychedelic bliss. The best songs from 1993’s Siamese Dream (“Geek U.S.A.,” “Silverfuck,” “Cherub Rock”) were crashing balls of metallic grind. And the Pisces material (“Starla,” “Obscured,” “Pissant”) served to remind fans just how fertile that time was for the group — even their throwaways are worth revisiting nearly two decades on.
Aside from Corgan’s frequent attempts to goad the audience into offering up even more adulation (raising a fist after every significant guitar stroke, pointing and miming “I can’t hear you” at the people he couldn’t even see), the only misstep was a late-set lull that took hold with the oddly jaunty “Owata,” from the in-progress Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project. The preceding shred and bluster neutered a brand new one too — “My Love is Winter,” which felt slow and forgettable even next to Adore’s “For Martha.”
Of course, that’s what “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” is for. For their encore, the Pumpkins pulled their ace in the hole. Beneath a massive light rig bedecked with gold streamers and giant pinwheels mosaic-ed with mirror shards, they had the crowd hypnotized. The sing-along was already in full effect when the band dropped out to let their fans take it: “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a — ” before Corgan let out that famous screech, the wail of a strange animal, a tortured coyote, and it sounded better than ever.