As the lights dim on Melbourne’s Hisense Arena, the vibe is already feeling a little odd.
The floor crowd is patchy in parts, entire sections of the upper side seats are curtained off; and there are plenty of plastic seats left untouched. The crowd cheers when the silhouetted band members emerge and pick up their instruments, but the applause soon dies down and the space becomes awkwardly quiet. A 10,000 capacity sporting arena with soaring ceilings is a tough venue to wrangle, and the Pumpkins have their work cut out for them.
The first bars of ‘Quasar’, from their new 2012 album Oceania, roll into the arena with the force of a sudden thunderstorm. Frontman and sole original Pumpkin, Billy Corgan is as commanding as he ever was, his unmistakable vocals soaring forcefully throughout the expansive arena.
It’s quickly obvious that this show is not just about extraordinary sound, but the full experience of the visuals as well. Hanging above the band is an enormous, inflated globe that embodies abstract and psychedelic video projections throughout the night.
As drummer Mike Byrne unleashes a hail of sound, each clash of his drumsticks is synchronised perfectly with a complex lighting show, flashing blinding red and white behind the band.
Without a word to the crowd, the Pumpkins jump straight into ‘Panopticon’, the second song on Oceania. There was no official announcement, but Corgan intends to play out the latest album in full.
From the point of down-tempo track ‘The Celestials’, the first single on the album, the energy starts to gradually dissipate. It continues declining for the next ten songs of Oceania, and you can literally see the interest waning. There are people talking in the upper stalls and others flicking through Facebook albums on their phones. Patrons are milling through exits, ambling back with arms full of beer without a shred of urgency.
After the seventh track, ‘Pinwheels’, Corgan politely announces, “we’re halfway through our Oceania album.” It sounds like he means, ‘thank you for your patience, it’s nearly over now.’
A fan responds, “play ‘Zero’!” Well said.
Not to give the wrong impression – the Oceania segment was pleasant enough. The songs are stunning, the band is wickedly tight, and Billy Corgan clearly still a good frontman. But the legions of fans aren’t here for new age Pumpkins. The largely Generation X assembly are lifted straight from Nirvana-era 90s and still clutching their flannel shirts to prove it.
Oceania finally wraps up with ‘Wildflower’, and the crowd is anxious to see what Corgan and Co will be pulling out next. Will he continue snubbing all his hits? If so, what has he got planned for the next hour? We’re answered by the drone of slow, marching snares. Mixed with drifts of psychedelic guitar, they continue on mysteriously, until the words: ‘Ground control to Major Tom.’ The crowd cheers, surprised but satisfied with the set’s change in direction.
At a similar pace to the Bowie original, it’s not a complete rework, but ‘Space Oddity’ as honestly as Smashing Pumpkins can do it: steeped in grungy sludge and topped with shredding solos. It’s a nice moment though, the spattering of lights behind Corgan like stars, as he sings of drifting in space under a big, purple moon that hangs above the stage.
When the first bars of ‘XYU’ ring out, it’s as if Dr. Frankenstein has flipped the switch on this comatose crowd, a surge of electricity rippling through the arena and jolting the fans to life. Within the song Corgan turns playful and dangerous, letting loose with his trademark guttural screams.
The sudden spike in energy nearly shoots through the roof when the Pumpkins bring in mega-hit, ‘Tonight, Tonight’. “Alright, alright,” he acknowledges. “Now we’re having a party.”
Having patiently indulged his desire to play his new album from start to finish, Corgan is now indulging us – with every hit in the catalogue they can fit into the hour they have left.
The iconic beating toms are met with thunderous approval from the audience, adding ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’ to the hit parade the venue are now gratefully receiving.
After ‘Soot and Stars’, Corgan steps up to the microphone and announces, “we’re gonna play a song that I don’t think has been played at a Smashing Pumpkins show in about 18 years. Not that you bloody well deserve it…we learned this song today just for you. Hope you like it.”
And with that, the beautifully dazed chords of ‘Luna’ sing out for the first time in over a decade. If anyone was really griping about Corgan’s ‘self-indulgence’ during the first half, surely they’re eating their words now.
The show closes with ‘Today’, in which the crowd enthusiastically echoes every word. The Pumpkins momentarily disappear offstage, returning for a triplet encore of ‘Zero’ (finally!), ‘Ava Adore’ and ‘Cherub Rock’.
You’ve got to hand it to Billy Corgan. Not only did he conquer the echoey, sexless multi-purpose beast that is Hisense Arena, but he completely outwitted the stubborn Generation X-ers, forcing them to actually shut up and listen to his new material (in full), while still leaving them breathless and properly satisfied.
Tonight, The Smashing Pumpkins proved that they’re more than just a relic of the last millennium, but still howling with a force that should leave plenty of today’s bands trembling.
- Tacey Rychter