REAL GONE GOES OUT: Smashing Pumpkins – Wembley Arena, London 16/10/2018

Some gigs come with a huge amount of pre-night excitement. The Smashing Pumpkins’ first – and only – UK date on their 2018 ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour’ is one of those times. Firstly, the tour is the first in decades to feature founding guitarist James Iha. In addition, Billy Corgan has already promised “a show like [the fans] have never seen before”. To say there’s a lot riding on the night is a huge understatement. Can the rejuvenated Pumpkins pull off the near impossible? Can they make the soulless environment of the Wembley SSE Arena feel friendly and justify the cost of a hugely expensive ticket?

It’s almost 8pm. The band are about to take the stage. It’s a full hour before most headline acts even consider appearing but, tonight – tonight – there’s so much to get through. The house lights dim and a montage of animated joys fills the massive screen. Set to the soundtrack of ‘Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness’ and other instrumental passages, we see bits from the Pumpkins’ past resurrected until the screen splits. Out wanders a solitary bald figure wearing black eye liner, a jacket emblazoned with the number 0, some hefty boots and a silver wrap that looks like a skirt, with more than a hint of 1920’s sci-fi. The opening notes of mega-hit ‘Disarm’ fill the air. This seems like an understated beginning for a promised massive show, but within seconds, everything makes sense. Corgan is, again, accompanied by visuals: in this case, there are Super 8 home movies, old school photographs, faded family photographs and other things from the past, digitally scratched up with slogans about darkness and displacement, using sharp, provocative language. Most telling are the words “BROKEN BOY” which flash up under a teenaged Billy in a way that is, indeed, incredibly disarming. Two words so utterly loaded; two words that tell so much. Two words more powerful than some writers are able to give in an entire career. If it were never clear before, it’s laid here like an open wound: whether he’s realised it or not, Corgan is the Godfather of twenty-first century emo.

The rest of the band appear on stage one at a time. On stage left, James Iha has a striking presence in an expensive white suit. He’s the yang to Corgan’s yin, but still carries his own sense of flamboyance. His return garners an enormous cheer. The fans have missed him – and rightly so. Despite being just the beginning of the set, ‘Rocket’ finds the band firing on all cylinders as if they’ve already had time to warm up, before ‘Siva’ and ‘Rhinoceros’ provide what are to be the set’s only concessions to the classic 1991 debut, ‘Gish’. If there are only to be two tunes played from the album, they could not be better chosen: ‘Siva’ has a genuine force ; so much bottom end, it feels as if the stage might collapse, while the moodiness of ‘Rhinoceros’ allows a moment of dreamy reflection, with pockets of the tightly packed standing area singing in unison.

As the stage lights drop on the final notes of ‘Rhinoceros’, stage hands are seen wheeling out a massive set of steps. Their purpose isn’t clear. Corgan re-emerges wearing a giant hooded jacket and wanders towards the quickly erected structure. From a high vantage point and looking a bit like Thomas Jerome Newton, he delivers his vocal for the next number: a spirited version of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. It doesn’t quite work in a heavier rock style and the theatrical aspects also fall a touch flat, but a lengthy rendition of the classic ‘Drown’ sets everything firmly back on track. Always a fabulous number, on this occasion it feels especially emotional – and particularly so by the time Billy, James and third guitarist Jeff Shroeder weave various feedback and drone elements during the spacey closing section. The punchier strains of ‘Zero’ are prefaced by a video segment with multiple Corgans explaining the importance of “no past, no future, no sun” and how all numbers “add up to zero” with a disjointed and almost gleeful sense of bleakness, before a huge and familiar riff pierces the air. The standing stalls burst into life; half the audience are twenty again and a track that became a 90s club classic is delivered with passion. There is never any sense of going through the motions for the sake of nostalgia or feeling like they’re playing ‘Zero’ because it’s expected, before the anger is pushed to extremes for ‘The Everlasting Gaze’, bits of which are so heavy, the guitars take on a muddy timbre. A better balance is restored for the underrated ‘Stand Inside Your Love’, a brilliantly melodic track from ‘Machina’ that, perhaps, is the most perfect blend of the band’s hard rock, vaguely grungy and overtly new wave musical loves so far – not just tonight, but during their whole career to date.

Having worked hard to whip the audience into feelings of intense angst, the set takes a huge detour for a selection of mellower tunes: ‘Thirty Three’ is understated; the synth driven ‘Eye’ (from the ‘Lost Highway’ soundtrack) sounds brilliantly mechanical when played back at such a huge volume (and also has a most unexpected place in the set), while falling somewhere between, the sprawling ‘Soma’ injects the feeling of 70s indulgence into a song heavily entrenched in the 90s. The performance is fantastic; the audience hangs from every lyric and every neo-psych riff. Iha has a moment centre stage for his own folk-pop b-side ‘Blew Away’; the crowd comes together for a very emotional ‘Mayonaise’, but it’s the double selection from ‘Adore’ that comes across best of all. Corgan, by now sporting a huge white hat, sits behind an organ on a high rise at the back of the stage, taking on the feel of a musical preacher during ‘For Martha’ and ‘To Sheila’. It’s lovely. In fact, everything within the last half an hour has been lovely, with each mellow moment deeper than the previous and certainly effective when it comes to stirring emotions that are oh, so different from the first act.

As the show moves on, the angular metallic designs on the backs of the moving parts of the stage start to look ever more beautiful with their art deco style; various pieces of digital art show a massive influence from Fritz Lang and even Corgan himself carries the ghosts of FW Murnau imagery. Somewhere between the artistic and surreal, this is a show in every sense. The epic ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ brings us back to the sprawling and experimental landscape of 1995’s ‘Mellon Collie’, reproducing an album highlight faithfully, but with heavy moments taking on a far more intense feel. If there were any claim to the Pumpkins being a prog band (and it would be hard to argue that with constant reinvention they aren’t at least progressive in the truer sense), these ten minutes do more than enough to help. The tightness in the musicianship is clear throughout; pretty much every second of the show has been pre-planned and there’s no temptation here to stretch this into a twenty minute jam akin to the ‘Silverfuck’ or ‘XYU’ of days past. It’s all the better for it. For a faithful cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’, Amelie Bruun (aka Myrkur) takes the stage for a fantastic lead vocal. This seems to be one of those songs that sounds great, whoever the performer, wherever the location. Tonight is no exception. Finally, a very loyal ‘Tonight, Tonight’ – complete with a world of Melies inspired animation brings the enormous venue together in a mass of voices.

There’s a little fairground music and some odd visuals involving a giant Corgan head to distract from figures busying upon the stage and eventually, the next part of the show is ready to begin. Corgan settles behind the electric piano; a few notes call out. They sound familiar, but it’s at least another thirty seconds until the penny drops with the front rows of the audience. It can’t be, can it…? It really is…the unmistakable melody of ‘Stairway To Heaven’! It’s the kind of thing where you’d expect a tease, maybe a whole verse and then a segue into something from the Pumpkins’ vast catalogue…but, no. Like the rest of the night, they’re in this for the long haul and the rest of the song is played with reverence, passion and respect. By the time Jeff takes on the familiar guitar solo, figures dressed as monks appear from the venue’s middle door. They push a giant model of the Virgin Mary through the middle of the crowd and then down the left hand side. Obviously, this goes unnoticed by the first sixty rows until the last second. It’s quite a spectacle…and seeing the audience slowly react is priceless.

Returning to heavier sounds, ‘Cherub Rock’ is utterly relentless, with the whole band locking into a groove and Jimmy Chamberlin smashing hell out of his kit. This song has felt a long time coming – it’s got set opener written all over it, but here it finally is, muscling in at just over two hours in. At this point, you just have to wonder: do Smashing Pumpkins ever run out of stamina? If not for rigid UK curfews, there’s now a feeling that this wondrous Tuesday night could even bleed into Wednesday morning and, most impressively, the band are playing with the same vigour as two hours previously. Expectedly, the classic ‘Cherub Rock’ has lost none of its guts within the intervening quarter century and is yet another highlight of a night packed with highlights.

After some more video based trickery and an interlude, Corgan reappears sporting a long red and gold jacket, like the reincarnation of an eccentric grand wizard. So…you still think Smashing Pumpkins aren’t a prog band?

The pop-ish ‘1979’ is greeted well, but is quickly outshone by the brilliant ‘Ava Adore’ which sounds better now than back in 1997. …But if anything, tonight’s rendition is made better by the extravagant visuals which, by now, involve spinning skeletons and drawings of a woman who appears to be bending into herself and then falling into a void. It seems we’re back to exploring the feelings of emotional unease and taking some hefty mechanical beats into consideration, it’s one of the night’s most striking marriages of audio and visual. The emotive ‘Try Try Try’ bleeds into an unexpected airing of ‘The End Is The Beginning Is The End’, before the triple whammy of ‘Hummer’, ‘Today’ and ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ bring an angst-fuelled climax that spins the crowd into life. Up in the gods, it’s even possible to see the light catching a man in a plain white t-shirt whom, standing alone and with plenty of space, appears to be doing a mad dance that’s all arms and legs. He looks like a marionette puppet…and there’s no question; he’s having the time of his life.

Knowing an audience needs a comedown before returning to the real world, the brief encore is sedate in comparison. The current single ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)’ makes it’s live debut and sounds fabulous. By turns melodic and punchy, it bodes especially well for the soon to be released album ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol. 1: No Future, No Past, No Sun’, coming across like a mix of ‘Adore’ era material and 2014’s ‘Monuments To An Elegy‘. It is most certainly a promising look into the next chapter of an ever-evolving band, before a ukulele led cover of Betty Noyes’ ‘Baby Mine’ adds quirk and whimsy. By now, Billy is wearing some bizarre headgear to go with his cloak and it’s a bit like a throwback to Peter Gabriel reciting stories on Genesis’ ‘Selling England’ tour of 1973.

…And you still think Smashing Pumpkins aren’t a prog band?

Thirty one songs. Three hours. No interval. The excesses of a 1970s live show with the added brilliance of modern technology. An almost perfect setlist, heavily weighted towards ‘Siamese Dream’ while also giving a lot of thought to how many different styles have influenced the band since the beginning? You couldn’t ask for more. The hits, the detours, the new, old and unexpected, all held in wonder. Oh, ‘Porcelina;, tonight you were majestic. ‘Tonight, Tonight’, you provided unity. ‘Drown’ a feeling of enormity and ‘Eye’, unpredicted new wave oddness. Yes, this has been an epic show in almost every sense. The way the visuals perfectly matched the musical moods at almost every beat seemed almost as important as the smaller figures working the massive stage. The themes of past and present gave the show an odd feeling of mortality – a one time only deal.

Billy was right: this has been like no other Pumpkins show. For those who were lucky enough to be there, it’s been a monumental performance. For most in attendance, these are memories to treasure.

October 2018