“Oh, Chicago, I’m coming home to you,” Billy Corgan sang Friday at the sold-out Riviera.
Not that he ever really left, but for Corgan and the latest incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins this was something of a homecoming, showcasing a new lineup and previewing a batch of fresh songs from a forthcoming album, “Oceania.” It also was an opportunity to re-energize a fan base that even Corgan acknowledged has been severely tested in recent years amid lineup machinations and indifferently received music.
The lean, shaven-headed singer is one of the most successful figures ever in Chicago music, an architect of ‘90s alternative rock, and also one of the most polarizing. So he was wise to let his songs do most of the talking. He pretty much stowed the on-stage editorializing and audience-baiting that marred his last major Chicago appearances in 2008 and got down to the business of playing more than two hours of music with guitarist Jeff Schroeder, drummer Mike Byrne and bassist Nicole Fiorentino.
Corgan has discarded all his original bandmates, and has been vilified for it. His response has always been to recruit new musicians, write more songs and tour as much as possible to rebuild the franchise (for those keeping count, this lineup marks at least the fifth major incarnation of the band since the early ‘90s).
Byrne was on the hot seat, as he replaced Jimmy Chamberlin --- Corgan’s longtime foil – in 2009. Though he doesn’t swing quite as fluidly as his formidable predecessor, the 21-year-old drummer has touch, power and energy. Fiorentino locked in with him, pushing her bass to the forefront of the band’s engine room, and chipping in with lots of harmony vocals that took the edge off Corgan’s nasal tone. Schroeder has developed a nuanced vocabulary with Corgan on guitar, more of a genuine give-and-take than previous lineups.
Corgan clearly was enjoying the exchanges, cracking smiles and waving his guitar Excalibur-style overhead. Between harrowing screams and falsetto cries, he toggled between two personas: ax murderer and sensitive cherub. He’s never been a technically gifted singer, but he’s found a way to embody the mood swings in his songs, whether the consoling son in “For Martha” or the defiant combatant in “Muzzle.”
For all of Corgan’s dominance as a personality, the set list was designed to show off the band. It lasered in on older songs with rollercoaster arrangements such as “Window Paine,” “Siva” and “Thru the Eyes of Ruby.” These epics brimmed with drop-out sections that brought the music down to near silence and then back up to roaring peaks. The serpentine rhythms and soft-to-lacerating guitar passages dominated the middle portion of the set, with “Oceania,” “Frail and Bedazzled” and “Silver …” forming an acid-rock triptych.
This was not a crowd-pleasing greatest-hits set. Though ‘90s singles “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” were enthusiastically received, B-sides (“Starla,” “Obscured,” “Frail and Bedazzled”), deep album tracks and recent or unreleased material dominated.
As Corgan has consistently maintained, the band's future depends on its ability to come up with new songs that connect in the same way the old ones once did (and still do). Otherwise, it means becoming a nostalgia act and hitting the road to flog run-throughs of "Gish" or "Siamese Dream" -- a notion that, unlike many of his '90s peers, Corgan has steadfastly rejected.
So what about those new songs scheduled for "Oceania"? The outlook is promising, based on Friday's local unveiling of a half-dozen new tunes. The sledgehammering “Quasar and Panoptican” opened the show, Corgan hunched over his guitar with splayed legs, his combat boots touching down on an armada of foot pedals. The mix was loud, violent, a thick tangle that buried melody beneath an avalanche of corrosive guitars and racing drums. The expansive “Oceania” title track was anchored by Corgan’s heavy organ atmospherics and Schroeder’s guitar commentary. “Owata” came off as one of the better, more direct pop melodies the singer has written in the last decade. After the mid-set freakfest, the baroque pop of “Pale Horse,” with its delicate riff and Byrne’s empathetic drumming, and the contemplative “My Love is Winter” provided a much-needed reprieve.
The surprises kept coming. Corgan turned over two-thirds of the encore to the reunited Chicago band Catherine, with whom he had worked in the ‘90s as a producer. On what was a triumphant night for the Pumpkins, Corgan let somebody else take a bow. Who saw that one coming?
Smashing Pumpkins set list Friday at the Riviera:
4 Geek U.S.A.
6 Window Paine
7 Lightning Strikes
11 Frail and Bedazzled
12 Silver …
14 Pale Horse
15 Thru the Eyes of Ruby
16 Cherub Rock
18 My Love Is Winter
19 For Martha
20 Mini-set by the band Catherine
21 Bullet with Butterfly Wings