The wealth of world-class venues and attentive audiences within Texas have made us a destination for performers both native to the state and from around the world. From time to time, we check in on these performances in “It Happened In Texas.” This time out, we caught Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair at the Bass Concert Hall in Austin on Tuesday.
Billy Corgan started his trip to Austin in Alex Jones’s studio for his third appearance on the incendiary talk radio host’s show. In addition to decrying “social justice warriors” and “hashtagging,” the Smashing Pumpkins frontman explained on Tuesday that he saw little difference between someone doing what they think is the right thing on the Internet in 2016 and a “Klan member spitting in some person of color’s face” in 1932 Alabama.
So that made for a slightly weird experience for some fans who had bought tickets for his show that night at the Bass Concert Hall. A generation of music lovers somewhere in their 30’s has long struggled with the Billy Corgan Problem. Sometimes he’s singing “Mayonnaise” and helping you get through your worst breakup; sometimes he’s holding a contest where the prize is the opportunity to buy him lunch. Sometimes he’s playing “Tonight, Tonight” and you don’t know why you’re crying; sometimes he’s on Alex Jones’ radio show comparing Twitter users and Klansmen in the thirties. His actions are often hard to decipher.
Still, deciding to put odd behavior behind you is part of deciding to go see the Smashing Pumpkins, and once you get past it, what you’re left with is Corgan’s 2005 promise: “I have made plans to renew and revive The Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams. In this desire I feel I have come home again,” he wrote in a full-page ad in his hometown Chicago Tribune. And at the Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday night, it was perhaps the best look at what that meant in over a decade. Corgan was reunited on this tour, for the first time since 2009, with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Chamberlin has always been the beating heart of Corgan’s songs—he’s always needed that propulsive energy to make his sappier instincts soar, and the set list reflected his work in new ways.
He played the hits—”Tonight, Tonight,” “1979,” “Disarm,” “Today,” and more all got their time on the stage—but Corgan also broadened his scope. He visited his solo material, played unreleased songs, performed material from his short-lived band Zwan and songs that he’d cowritten with musicians like Natalie Imbruglia and Courtney Love in the nineties, as well as a selection of classic rock songs that Corgan just seems to like. He dropped David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in the early part of the set, and closed with a series of covers that included ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” and “Angie” by the Rolling Stones for the encore.
That’s all a little weird—Corgan made fun of fans who come to his shows demanding “Rat In A Cage,” which should have been a tip that the band wasn’t going to drop “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” but it also meant that the set didn’t sustain some of its momentum. The Bass Concert Hall is a seated theater, and for most of the show, the audience stayed sitting. That felt like an appropriate way to absorb the largely acoustic set—but after playing a suite of songs from the band’s 1993 breakthrough Siamese Dream, Corgan played “1979,” perhaps the biggest hit of his career. The entire theater stood up. People danced in the aisle, Corgan pointed to the audience to let them know when it was their turn to sing the choruses, and the big rock-star moments, such as they were, played out.
But when it came time to build on that momentum, the band opted for an anti-climax: they jumped to “Stand Inside Your Love” from the slimly-loved 2000 album Machina/Machine of the Gods, then “Pinwheels” from 2012’s Oceania, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness deep-cut “Lily (My One and Only).” Another band might have gone out on a finale that included the hits—but Corgan, who wanted his songs, his band, and his dreams back when he started playing as Smashing Pumpkins again, also wanted to deliver the material that he wanted to play.
In some ways, that’s a disappointment—there were a lot of hits left on the table that people would have been pretty pumped to hear following “1979.” In other ways, though, it’s kind of refreshing to hear a legacy rock band that’s so clearly following its own muse. Nobody in the audience would have been disappointed if they had missed the chance to hear Smashing Pumpkins play “Angie” on Tuesday night, but you get the feeling that Corgan would have been disappointed not to sing it.
In an era where legacy bands are often just live-action jukeboxes, the fact that Corgan is still such a weirdo—whether that means cutting pro-wrestling promos, wearing the entire contents of his suitcase to Alex Jones’s studio, or closing a Smashing Pumpkins show with back-to-back-to-back covers—has its own appeal. He gave the audience “Tonight, Tonight,” and “33” (as a duet with opener Liz Phair) and “Eye.” He played nearly half of Siamese Dream. He gave the obsessives a chance to hear Zwan songs, or their favorite deep-cuts from Mellon Collie. Anybody who loved Smashing Pumpkins’ music enough to go see the band play in 2016 probably loved them, at least in part, because they felt a connection to the idiosyncratic weirdness that is Billy Corgan. Delivering that onstage for two hours is its own kind of crowd pleasing.