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Smiling Politely: Smashing Pumpkins at Rams Head Live, July 12

July 21, 2010

We’re far enough out from the heyday of 1990s alternative rock that all of its big bands have experienced some combination of commercial decline, falls from grace, breakups, and reunions. But perhaps none have squandered its goodwill with fans quite as extravagantly as Smashing Pumpkins since Billy Corgan revived the band’s name in 2006, without half of its classic lineup’s participation. Since then, he’s released the dud comeback album Zeitgeist, celebrated the band’s 20th anniversary with a disastrous tour, fired longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and began dating Jessica Simpson.

And though Corgan’s latest project is yet another stunt seemingly designed to alienate all but the biggest diehards–a 44-song album doled out a few songs at a time–the band’s recent club tour felt like a good chance at redemption, a chance to play some satisfying intimate shows after 2008’s anniversary flameout.

At times, it felt like Corgan was treating the Baltimore tour stop as an opportunity to present a friendlier, less antagonistic Billy. He didn’t wear any crazy cult leader robes, his banter between songs was mostly polite and gracious, and even when fans heckled a little too rudely he kept a sense of humor about it. But the setlist was still light on the songs from 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s Mellan Collie And The Infinite Sadness that made the band a mult-iplatinum phenomenon: four hits from that period, plus one gorgeously performed deep cut, “Hummer,” that was far and away the highlight of the show. Post-reunion songs from Zeitgeist and the aforementioned 44-song behemoth Teargarden by Kaleidyscope took up half the set, and the naggingly repetitive opener “Astral Planes” set a discouraging tone for the rest of the night.

Still, Corgan and his band occasionally showed an ear for interpreting the Pumpkins back catalog to great effect. Throughout the night, they revisited a trio of singles, “Ava Adore,” “Eye,” and “Perfect,” that signaled an electronics-influenced direction for the band in the late ‘90s, each of them given more rock-oriented live arrangements with driving drums and wailing guitar leads.

Later singles such as “Stand Inside Your Love” and “That’s The Way (My Love Is)” were given their proper due as underrated guitar pop gems. The big hits all sounded great, even “Tonight, Tonight” without a string section booming behind the band, and only “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” was hampered by an unusual vocal performance from Corgan. His band of hired hands mostly had the songs nailed, although when 20-year-old drummer Mike Byrne ran through a lackluster “Cherub Rock,” it was a harsh reminder of how important Jimmy Chamberlain was to the band’s sound.

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  • Ryan Graham

    I actually really liked Zeitgeist (much better than Zwan or his awful solo album), but mainly because of Jimmy's awesome drumming. No more Jimmy = me no listen. I mean, Billy managed to do fine without him on Adore, but that was back when he was still writing amazing songs. These days… he needs Jimmy.