Published Aug 09, 2018Nostalgia has never really been Billy Corgan's thing. Even as the Smashing Pumpkins embarked on their "farewell tour" in 2000, the sets heavily favoured songs from the then-new and relatively unpopular Machina/The Machines of God. Corgan's reformed iterations of the band similarly don't shy away from the past, but his dislike of fan service is apparent; the present is the focus, always leaving fans wondering what's next for the band.
That's why the current Pumpkins "reunion" tour (original bass player D'Arcy Wretzky isn't partaking) is such a curio. By cherry-picking hits and deep cuts from the band's initial (and most beloved) run, Corgan seems to be abandoning the artistic impulses that, for better or worse, have driven the band for the past decade. But as the recent Toronto stop on their "Shiny and Oh So Bright" tour showed, it's hard to find fault when the results are this good.
Slowly creeping out from behind a pair of video screens, Corgan, decked out in black and a silver frock, kicked things off in style. Hitting the opening chords of "Disarm" on an acoustic guitar, he was backed only by a recording of the song's orchestral accompaniment. Projected behind him were photos of the singer-guitarist as a young boy. The rest of the band were soon revealed: original members Jimmy Chamberlin and James Iha joined current guitarist Jeff Schroeder and touring members Jack Bates and multi-instrumentalist Katie Cole, who got things rolling with "Rocket."
But it was on the extended instrumental sections on "Siva" and "Rhinoceros" where the band really found their footing, and the looser solos and breakdowns provided continuous highlights throughout the night. The technical skill the band were always willing to put on display — particularly Corgan's searing guitar solos and Chamberlin's furious drumming — showed no signs of aging.
The night was segmented into mini-sets, often bookended by changing Art Deco-inspired stage design or video clips featuring images from the band's iconic music videos or even some original pieces, like the one that saw a pre-recorded clip of Corgan (the real deal was standing just to the side of the stage oddly) rallying the "freaks" for "Zero."
Choice album cuts and rarities were sprinkled in between the hits. It was great to hear soundtrack favourites "Drown" and "Eye" make the cut, while Corgan took to an elevated piano while wearing a white top-hat for beautiful renditions of "For Martha" and To Sheila."
Still, Corgan wasn't going to let his own muse go unanswered. Covers of "Space Oddity" and "Stairway to Heaven" were thrown into the three-hour-plus set for some reason — maybe a tacit acknowledgement that Pumpkins have reached the classic rock phase of their career? And a video clip featuring Mark McGrath in full vaudeville kit introduced the Iha sung B-side "Blew Away" and nostalgia soaked "1979." Seriously, it just felt like the singer was just taunting his audience here. But it wouldn't be a Pumpkins show without a few head-scratching moments.
As the show rolled into its third hour, Corgan, who'd ceded most of the audience interactions to Iha, began to loosen up, lurking around the stage guitarless for "Ava Adore" and "Try Try Try." before leading the crowd through soaring sing-alongs during "Mayonnaise" and "Tonight Tonight."
During the final stretch Corgan took a moment to acknowledge the debt the band owed to Rush — he and Chamberlin first bonded over the band, and it was the drummer's ability to play like Neil Peart that gave Corgan in the inkling that this could be far more than some "goth band."
Coming at the end of the night, "Today" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" are always audience pleasers, but it was heartening how well-executed and received songs like "Hummer" and the main set's closer "Muzzle" were.
Though they'd arguably exhausted pretty much every song most fans would have wanted them to play, the band returned for a two-song encore that included an acoustic, ukulele rendition of Betty Noyes's "Baby Mine," and "Solara" a Rick Rubin-produced track the reunited group dropped at the beginning of the tour. It's a pretty run-of-the mill track by Pumpkins standards and following the breadth and depth of the main set, it felt even slighter in the encore. But importantly, it once again seemed to hint at what's next.