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all words: Paula Mejia
all photos: Stephanie Breijo

Is this really happening? Is that really Billy Corgan?

I’m on the way to the 9:30 Club, watching DC drift by me through the foggy window of the cab, when it hits me- this show isn’t just sold out. It’s super fucking sold out. Like, an hour after tickets go on sale sold out. The type of sold out that draws crowds of fans hanging outside of the club, probably who got royally screwed over by ticket services, hoping for the slight possibility of extras to see one of their favorite bands ever from the 90s.

The cab rolls up to the venue and I feel slightly queasy, stemming from a strange mixture of excitement, extreme luck and incredible guilt. How is it even possible that I’m going to this show when so many other people who grew up listening to The Smashing Pumpkins weren’t able to? Even more daunting, how can I even begin to both quantify and encapsulate the surreal experience of seeing the Smashing Pumpkins live in this review?

Upon entering the packed 9:30 Club (I really have got to start coming earlier to these shows), I immediately noticed three things:

  1. Extremely heightened security- more than I’ve ever seen- for this show. Copious amounts of signs both inside and outside advertising ABSOLUTELY NO STAGE DIVING/CROWD SURFING, complete with not one, not two, but three bouncers at the front (and countless more throughout the venue), as well as two people checking bags at the front made it seem like an especially exclusive event. Not that I could picture Billy Corgan stage-diving Iggy Pop-style into a sweaty mass of fans. But surprising nonetheless.
  2. I was probably one of the youngest, if not the youngest person at this concert. The hefty majority of the crowd was comprised of thirty and forty somethings, arm and arm with their significant other, smiles brimming from their beer-drenched lips. Which makes sense. Back when the Pumpkins had their first smash (pun completely intended) hits in the early 90s from Gish and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, most of the crowd, like Corgan, would have been in their early 20s (the age I am now). It’s also evident that most of the crowd had been fans of the band for a while. In this current era of stereotypical hipster shows where apathy seems to be a prevalent fixture, it’s awesome to go to a show and have people genuinely psyched to see a band. You could hear the buzz of disbelief and euphoria reverberating from every discernible direction.
  3. Absolutely. Humongous. Amplifiers. As soon as I saw the sheer size and number of amps onstage, I immediately smacked my forehead. Damn it! Earplugs would have been a great idea…

With all of this in mind, I ventured upstairs, luckily snagging a great spot among the railing. It was exactly 9:45, right when The Smashing Pumpkins were supposed to come onstage. Sound and crew guys casually kept walking across, raising everyone’s heart rate that much more, thinking it was one of the band members. Several minutes later, the lights went out and the crowd erupted into a primal roar. One by one, the new band members came onstage, the volume reaching maximum capacity when Corgan stepped onto the stage. Countless yells of BILLAYYYYY made it seem as though DC was collectively welcoming back an old, long-lost friend. Which had me smiling unconsciously, because that’s what The Smashing Pumpkins are for so many. Welcoming back memories.

Twin strings of lightbulbs adorned the stage, which became the centerpiece of Corgan’s communication with the audience. Between sets, instead of making conversation with the crowd, the stage faded to black. Each time, a different sound was played. The first one had everyone laughing with slight unsettlement: a creepy vaudevillian carnival number. With the lights blinking violently, it almost made you nauseous. The second, the sounds of rain and thunder poured from the speakers, permeating the air. Yet each time, they broke out into the type of heavy rock anthem that reminded you why the 9:30 Club hired three bouncers up front.

Save for the tongue twister “Sally sells seashells by the seashore” (which, when he kept tripping up, had new bassist Nicole Fiorentino complete), Corgan didn’t really communicate directly with the audience. Verbally, that is.

Sonically, the band displayed an incredible range of sounds. Slow buildups rising into gutteral, hard-rock crescendos; solid guitar solos; pulsating basslines; ambient, lush soundscapes characteristic of the late 80s/early 90s shoegaze genre while breaking out into steady, consistent rock odysseys. Overall, the sound was tight while remaining experimental, weaving influences and disciplines together into a quilt of melancholic distortion intrinsic to the Pumpkins’ sound.

While they played a (surprisingly? is anything about Corgan’s petulence surprising anymore?) sparse number of their well-known hits (Tonight, Tonight, 1979 and Zero were among the ones I admit I was expecting to hear), they didn’t disappoint. The devoted crowd still knew most of the words to each of the songs, guided by Billy Corgan’s fuzzy vocals.

For being pinned as such a melancholic dude, Corgan is incredibly self-aware. He has the practice of being a rock star down, from shredding riffs to Black Sabbath-worthy stances. Head down during his many insane solos, he refused to make direct eye contact with anything except the guitar in front of him. Maybe it’s just me, but part of the appeal of Corgan’s voice is that it’s nearly impossible to place. Ranging from a guttural growl, to frantic and desperate, to a drawling falsetto, I was washed over with a nostalgia for something I didn’t even know I had. Corgan’s voice, while resilient, has a sense of longing that will inevitably be unfulfilled. It encapsulates what The Smashing Pumpkins are: that cathartic mood that hits you mid-autumn when the days become slower, dead leaves crunching under your feet, and everything is at the disposal of the wind blowing around you, often in ways you can’t comprehend.

While maintaining a sonic unity amidst experimentation (even the new songs to me had a strong 90s rock vibe to them), The Smashing Pumpkins remind you in their live show that it’s not so much about playing songs directly as they are from the album. It’s a manipulation of sound and exploring the implications of noise.

Setlist:

1. Quasar
2. Panopticon
3. Starla
4. Geek U.S.A.
5. Muzzle
6. Window Paine
7. Lightning Strikes
8. Soma
9. Siva
10. Oceania
11. Frail and Bedazzled
12. Silverfuck
13. Obscured
14. Pale Horse
15. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
16. Cherub Rock
17. Owata
18. My Love is Winter
19. For Martha

Encore:

20. Pinwheels
21. Pissant
22. Bullet With Butterfly Wings

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