“They don’t like it when I talk,” admits The Smashing Pumpkins‘ baldy evil genius Billy Corgan during a mid-set interlude. “I always get into trouble when I talk.” If that’s true it’s not in evidence tonight. There’s nothing of the wilfully antagonistic, indulgent Corgan the media like to present. Tonight’s set is about as crowd-pleasing as this band can actually get.
Last time Corgan’s mob were in town they played two hours straight of b-sides, unreleased material and album deep-cuts. Casual fans were baffled by a set that opened with two brand new songs and followed them up with all 10 minutes of 1992 b-side Starla. It was 40 minutes before they played a single, and when they did it was Siva, which hardly set the charts alight on its 1991 release. Mutters of “self-indulgence” and the band having “disappeared up their own arse” hit Twitter soon after.
Those who complained were missing the point. The Smashing Pumpkins have always done this, regardless of who was standing beside Corgan. Their ‘classic’ line up headlined the Reading Festival in 1995 with a set that was two thirds comprised of completely unreleased songs. The Pumpkins hardcore, the ones that have stuck with Corgan through his many regenerations, delight in this stuff – the more obscure the better; the deeper the cut, the lengthier the redux, the more hungrily it’s devoured. If you don’t like 20 minute space-rock jams on forgotten album tracks, you don’t really like The Smashing Pumpkins. It’s just what they do.
Which is why tonight’s set is such a surprise. Tonight Corgan doesn’t just play his biggest hits, he actually opens with them. Tonight Tonight, probably the most sumptuous and accessible of their mid ’90s big guns, kicks of proceedings. It’s followed up by Cherub Rock, a brilliant cover of Space Oddity, the none-more-heavy XYU and the beautiful Disarm. It’s about as friendly an opening half hour as Corgan could possibly have played. It pays off, too. The Wembley Arena crowd, spoiled by such wanton treats, are now truly onside, allowing the band to slip into a suite of songs from the their recent return-to-form Oceania album. The tracks, backed by a kaleidoscopic barrage of psychedelic projections, are genuinely well received; there’s none of the restlessness you often sense in an arena crowd when an old band play new songs.
The latest Pumpkins line up, completed by long-serving guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne, is the first properly gelling backline Corgan has had since about 1996, and it’s nowhere more apparent than in the newer material, especially the gorgeous, airy Pin Wheels. Slipped into the middle of the newies is 33, one of the gentler moments from the landmark Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness; this version of The Smashing Pumpkins manage to make it feel of a piece with the Oceania material; they’re not just playing an oldie, but reinterpreting it.
Corgan seems to enjoying himself too, joking about media whores, listing classic British bands “Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones… Wishbone Ash” and reminiscing about playing the Astoria. There’s a nice balance here between the commercial and the esoteric – unusually, Corgan plays straight up-versions of nearly all of the band’s classic-era singles (Today, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Zero, Ava Adore, Stand Inside Your Love), alongside a more typical lengthy prog-out on the metalcore United States, tonight’s only dip into the much-maligned Zeitgeist.
The audience won over, the night now their own, Corgan reverts to type in the encore. We get The Celestials, one of Oceania’s standouts, and rarely played since its release, and a final closing run through 1995’s Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans. It’s a blissful take on an archetypal Pumpkins epic, all quiet/loud dynamics, slow builds, mounting tension and explosive release. It’s a song that’s bobbed in and out of the bands set for nearly 20 years, and tonight is genuinely one of the best versions this writer has seen them do.
As the crowd filters out, having seen one of the most notoriously unpredictable and not-always reliable forces in music treat an audience to all-the-hits, treat the hardcore to fan favourites, and treat them all to the strongest new material he’s written in a decade, someone starts to grumble: “I can’t believe they didn’t play 1979.” There’s no pleasing some people.