Published Apr 13, 2016In the summer of 2015, with the Smashing Pumpkins' seminal Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness about to turn 20, frontman Billy Corgan declared that it was time to "celebrate the legacy" of his band's storied career in a now-deleted series of tweets. And while he recently made it clear he will never submit to playing "classic album" shows, his decision to put new spins on old favourites, dig out back catalogue rarities and pick from an eclectic list of cover songs suited a sold-out Massey Hall crowd just fine on the lone Canadian stop of the band's "In Plainsong" tour.
Billed as "acoustic-electro" performances, Corgan delivered on the first half of that description himself, playing his acoustic guitar alone onstage in front of a beautifully illustrated backdrop of blossom trees, sounding just as majestic as the scene looked. Unreleased songs "Cardinal Rule" and "The World's Fair" had the audience locked in attentive silence (minus a few cheers for every flash of Corgan's solo skill), while Mellon Collie favourites "Stumbleine," "Tonight, Tonight" and "Thirty-Three" were all audibly stripped down, with the latter featuring backing vocals from touring partner Liz Phair.
After covering David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and post-Pumpkins project Zwan's lengthy "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" with guitarist Jeff Schroeder, Corgan announced the next part of the set would be looking back at the band's other '90s classic, Siamese Dream, as drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and multi-instrumentalists Katie Cole and Sierra Swan took the stage.
The "Siamese Suite," as Corgan called it, featured some of the more interesting reworks of the evening. "Mayonaise" was an all-acoustic affair before Schroeder switched to electric to play some searing leads, while Corgan did away his buzzsaw guitar tone for "Soma" and "Rocket" in favour of playing gentler electric piano. The instrument change, coupled with Chamberlin dialling back the force with which he attacked his kit on the band's early records, suited the tracks better for performances more intimate than at arenas and amphitheatres.
But for fan favourite "Disarm," already a heavily acoustic song as it is, the reverse engineering didn't quite translate as smoothly. Alone on stage, Corgan sat hunched over a keyboard in the corner, illuminated by a single spotlight like some sort of '90s alt-rock pariah. Replacing the song's driving guitar chords was an obnoxious organ tone that clashed with Corgan's vocals in a way that made the rework not only the worst of the set, but also far less inspiring than the original.
Because art imitates life, Chamberlin left the stage while Corgan cued up a drum machine to provide beats for his own "Sorrows (In Blue)" and Pumpkins deep cut "Eye," getting the set back on track through showcasing his forays into electronic music. It was in these darker musical moments that Corgan seemed to get more comfortable, taking the mic from its stand, pacing the stage while glaring menacingly at those in the front row and anchoring his foot upon the front monitor for the hard-rocking "Saturnine" and a powerful cover of Natalie Imbruglia's "Identify."
While a full band version of "1979" (including audience sing-alongs) and a transformation of "Stand Inside Your Love" from scorching rocker to tender ballad highlighted the set's close, the evening with Corgan and company had proven that some more meaningful reflection on one's own vast musical catalogue can free a legacy act (or one close to approaching that status) from remaining stuck in their own nostalgia.