By Mark Guarino
Coming from a 41-year-old man wearing a floor-length tiered skirt, fistfuls of rage might feel a little insincere.
So Billy Corgan lightened up. At the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday, Corgan and his resuscitated Smashing Pumpkins performed the second of two homecoming shows that complimented the excessive rock portion of the first night (titled “Black Sunshine”) with an evening of finely textured folk and light pop (titled “White Crosses”). The bookend shows repeat starting Friday at the Auditorium Theatre.
The Smashing Pumpkins helped dominate the alt-rock nation of the 1990s with a signature style and mystique that matched sonic power with confessional heft. Yet after many personnel turns best described as operatic, Corgan ended the band in 2000.
In 2006, Corgan returned with a new lineup that included original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, and after a new album and global touring, the band is home.
But this version is less a band than regimented ensemble. Keyboardist Ginger Reyes, guitarist Jeff Schroeder and bassist Lisa Harriton joined two horn players, a keyboardist and a backup singer who doubled on a double violin, the total sum weaving together a sound that was richly nuanced, almost gentle, compared with the bombastic peaks of the first night.
Corgan, dressed in what a New York fashion house might call “gladiator goth,” pursued a set list that reflected his band’s more romantic, even hopeful side. The choice felt more natural for the singer and guitarist, who seems bored faced with the angst that directed past hits like “Tonight, Tonight” or “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” which were played in a rush the first night.
Wednesday, the majority of songs came from the Corgan songbook that has long been in the shadows, including the ballad “Cupid de Locke” and “Suffer,” a song from the band’s 1994 debut now transformed into sly Afro-beat, sending its singer dancing to both ends of the stage. The band interwove these with new, unreleased songs that captured a similar tone: Corgan opened and closed “99 Floors” playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, “Owata” had the deep pocket feel of 1970s country rock, while “A Song For a Son” built to majestic heights that has long become his signature.
The songs reflected Corgan’s deepening maturity as a songwriter, but also as an arranger; the music felt evenly wrought, with each player neatly complimenting the overall textures and moods.
The 24-song, 2-hour-and-90-minute show also included two covers that could represent each half of the band. Corgan and Schroeder played Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” in tandem on acoustic guitars, while the entire band tore through a noise punk version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” recognizable only by its lyrics.
This being a Smashing Pumpkins show, there was a detour into baseball talk — “God bless Steve Goodman, but I think I can top ‘Go Cubs Go,'” Corgan said, adding, “Eddie [Vedder] ain’t living here, [so he can’t] write a song about my team.” There was also an expected unraveling near the end, the music charged by turbulence that, at least personally, Corgan seems long past.