Thursday 26th July – Review by Keaton McSweeney
Sold-out and brimming with anticipation, Challenge Stadium was a hive of activity on Thursday night, with a diverse crowd of aging gen-X’ers, gothic teens and a representee from seemingly every sub-culture in between on hand for the return of cult-like alt-rock survivors THE SMASHING PUMPKINS. Touring in support of their well received new album ‘Oceania’, the reformed ‘Pumpkins have been in the midst of a critical resurgence as of late, with the new record receiving the best response that head ‘Pumpkin and sole original member Billy Corgan has enjoyed in over fifteen years. Still, with the band billed to be playing their entire new album in it’s entirety, followed by a set of “greatest hits”, it was anyone’s guess as to how this show would go, especially given the unpredictable nature of the famously outspoken and divisive Corgan
Local three piece and sole support SUGAR ARMY were met with a healthy cheer as they wandered onto the Challenge stage, the core trio of frontman Patrick McLaughlin, guitarist Todd Honey, and cowboy-hat sporting drummer Jamie Sher bolstered on this occasion by the addition of a bass player and multi-instrumentalist. Looking fairly at home in the stadium environment, the guys wasted no time kicking into a tight, brooding set of angular indie rock, pierced with Honey’s echoing guitar lines and shot through with McLaughlin’s impressive falsetto vocals. Although an early outing of former WAM Rock Song of the Year ‘Acute’ fell a little flat with their audience, this was the band’s only low point, with the rest of set proving to be a fine showcase of this band’s growing wealth of top-shelf material. Following a spacey synth interlude that saw McLaughlin armed with a blood-red telecaster, the title track to the band’s upcoming sophomore release ‘Summertime Heavy’ proved to be the set’s epic highlight, it’s endlessly repeated chorus hook the kind of earworm that could gets stuck in your head for days. Hearkening back to their earlier material with the hard-rocking ‘…And Now You’re Old Enough…’, the band closed out the set with a solid rendition of popular 2009 single ‘Tongues In Cheeks’, receiving a warm reaction from the crowd in the process.
A chorus of hoots and whistles erupted from the crowd as the lights went down in preparation for THE SMASHING PUMPKINS, with the random outbursts then coalescing into a roaring cheer as the unmistakeable silhouette of lead vocalist/guitarist Billy Corgan appeared on stage. Situating himself behind one of the three synths set up before him, Corgan opened the set with a strange, unnerving organ coda, it’s clunking notes soon growing into a layered, swirling wash of electronics. With the maelstrom reaching a peak, the strains of ‘Oceania’ opener ‘Quaser’ saw a red glow begin to emanate from behind the giant black curtain covering the stage, with the curtain then dropping to reveal a massive, glowing orb hanging above the band, the combination of the spectacle and the song’s monumental riffage eliciting a loud roar from the crowd. Closing the first song of the set with a tearing solo from guitarist Jeff Schroeder (sure to silence anyone still pining for ex-guitarist James Iha), the band went on to make good on their promise of playing their new album in it’s entirety. But while some in attendance may have felt this was a poor move on Corgan’s part, hearing the album live worked exceptionally well, especially when complimented with the weird and wonderful visuals playing across the ever-transfixing orb. Songs like ‘My Love Is Winter’, ‘The Celestials’ and the album’s expansive title track sounded muscular and impressive in the live environment, with Corgan’s noisey shred guitar solo on the latter eliciting an appreciative reaction from the audience. Bass guitarist Nicole Fiorentino’s backup vocals also proved to be a welcome addition to the Pumpkins’ sound, softening the harsh edges of Corgan’s distinctive nasally vocals. Finishing the ‘Oceania’ half of the evening with low-key album closer ‘Wild Flower’ (the lilting ballad proving much more palatable in the live environment), the band looked relieved to have gotten through it unscathed, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the crowd’s positive reaction.
Of course, as interesting as it was to hear the new album played in full, almost all in attendance had been waiting patiently through the new material for the evening’s second half, promised to be a set of “greatest hits”; and while Corgan has often refused to “play the hits” in past years, this evening he pulled out all the stops. After opening with the most epic, hard-rocking rendition of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ any of us are ever likely to hear, the second set began proper with a fierce rendition of rage-filled anthem ‘X.Y.U’ from 1995’s ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’, its nihilistic opening riff met with a huge roar from the eager crowd. Corgan and co then went on to fully appease the won-over audience, playing through almost all of the Pumpkins’ early-90’s hit singles, including a hard edged version of ‘Disarm’, a soaring rendition of ‘Tonight Tonight’ and closing out the main set with the crowd-pleasing one-two punch of ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ and ‘Today’.
Returning to the stage after a solid five minutes of clapping and stomping from the audience, Corgan once again thanked the crowd for allowing the band to play their new album in its entirety. The ‘Pumpkins then tore into a hard-rocking three-song encore that included 90’s alternative anthem ‘Cherub Rock’ and a stomping, guitar heavy rendition of 1998 single ‘Ava Adore’, before the show was concluded with the much loved ‘Mellon Collie’ favourite ‘Zero’. A solid, interesting and consistently entertaining night of music, this was a rare breed of show from the reformed Pumpkins, who in past years have made a point of steering clear of crowd-pleasing radio singles in favour of lengthy guitar jams, deep-cuts, and rarities (much to the chagrin of their more casual fans). On this occasion, Corgan obviously felt that making his audience sit through an entire album of brand-new material warranted a performance of some bona-fide crowd-pleasers, though it seems likely that the show may have been found a little wanting by the more dedicated fans in attendance; those who know the hits more than well enough and could’ve stood to have heard a few more classic album tracks (of which the Pumpkins have a great, great many). Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and this was nevertheless an impressive and enjoyable outing from the reformed Pumpkins.