Back when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were bringing back a ripped-jeans aesthetic and rawer, punkier sound, Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins dared to play a more epic, flashy, psychedelic, egocentric brand of rock ’n’ roll. They succeeded in a big way, too, landing multiplatinum albums and a record for the largest concert in Twin Cities history, playing to an estimated 75,000 people at 1998’s free Aquatennial Block Party.
Two decades later, in an era when AutoTuned pop stars and preprogrammed country acts now dominate the arena circuit, Corgan and his reunited bandmates aimed for a similar return to mega-sized, ’70s-flavored rock Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center.
This time around, though, the Pumpkins’ success rate was more hit-and-miss. They put on the kind of elaborate, ambitious rock spectacle where even teetotalers may have felt a stoner-like haziness by show’s end. Or at least everybody had the munchies when it was over, since the performance lasted over three hours.
From the get-go, Sunday’s concert seemed less like a camaraderie-fueled reunion tour than a new marketing campaign for the old Billy Corgan Is a Rock God™ brand. It was still all about Billy. Never mind that the reason 10,000 people came out Sunday — as opposed to the 1,000 that saw the last Pumpkins gig in town at the Pantages — is that it reunited three-fourths of the band’s original lineup.
Wearing an Ed Wood-ian black outfit with a silvery skirt and occasional cape, the 51-year-old frontman took the stage all by his lonesome, seething self, walking through a crack in the stage’s large video screen like Jesus walking out of the tomb; or maybe more like Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls busting out of the cocoon.
He stayed up there solo through the whole opening song “Disarm,” making for an awkward pause as the rest of the Pumpkins then came out and got situated.
The band itself — with guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and three auxiliary members — sounded great. This Pumpkins lineup came off better, or at least tighter, than the heyday Pumpkins often did in their erratic ’90s.
Band members and fans alike seemed to be having a blast as the group steamrolled through a series of fuzz-toned, melodic but mighty gems from the early years, including “Rocket,” “Siva,” “Rhinoceros” and the “Singles” soundtrack nugget “Drown.”
Everybody, that is, except for the ever-grimacing Corgan.
If he told the crowd his cat had been killed that morning by a rat in a cage, nobody would have been surprised. That would’ve been the lengthiest thing he said all night, too, up until show’s end when he talked about playing 7th Street Entry in 1990 and bragged that Prince once told him he liked one of his songs.
Iha did most of the talking — and got to sing one of his solo tunes, too — but tellingly, it was Corgan and not his guitarist who took the night’s first extended guitar solo (on “Siva”).
Whenever he put down his guitar, Corgan’s ego actually seemed to inflate even more. During the first of the night’s three major classic-rock covers, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the stage crew inexplicably erected a one-song-only staircase for him to stand atop. Maybe to get closer to the cosmos?
Corgan performed from on up high again mid-set during the slow, dragging ballads “For Martha” and “Eye,” for which the crew — that poor crew! — had to get a piano onto a 10-foot riser above the stage. Never mind that there were already two other pianos at stage level that he could have used.
Maybe the ultimate sign of Corgan’s elevated sense of girth came three-quarters of the way through the set, when he followed the Pumpkins-standardized cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” with a much more brashly chosen version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It was a relatively spot-on and rewarding rendition of the ubiquitous rock classic, but it underlined how bloated and unnecessarily long the show was. And how weird. So weird.
Fortunately, the set turned a little more grounded and a lot less grandiose for the last 45 minutes, when the hits piled up and the songs themselves outshined Corgan’s desperate showmanship.
Fans sang along to “Tonight, Tonight,” “1979” and “Today” — and pumped their fists and heads along to “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” — with enough sheer joy to justify Corgan’s overbearing pride. Or at least half of it, anyway, as Sunday’s concert proved half-great in the end.