By Mark Guarino
First he played Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Turkey, Italy, Germany, Scotland, France, Ireland, the U.K., Spain, Belgium and — oh yes — Baltimore.
Then, thirteen months after resurrecting the Smashing Pumpkins — the brand not the band — Billy Corgan finally got around to returning home to play Chicago.
Except it was in Hammond. In Indiana. At a casino.
That Chicago’s most commercially successful rock star chose his return at a venue called The Venue at Horseshoe Casino struck some ticketholders as slightly weird.
“It’s a freaking casino,” said an exasperated Kate Rowan, 28, of Pilsen, as she waited for the band to start after beelining through a gaming floor of people working the slots and saddling up to Keno tables. “You have to be here with non-fans.”
Across the floor stood Scott Straley, 37, of Chicago, who figured he would be standing for this occasion at Metro, where Corgan orchestrated the finale of the Pumpkins’ first incarnation in 2000. “Are they boycotting Chicago?” he asked.
Fair question. The Venue is not Metro, nor does it try to be. While the new $70 million space has the charm of an airplane hanger and suffers from zero sightlines (woe to the vertically challenged), it does provide dynamic sound and generous space that makes navigating a 3,300-capacity general admission crowd feel very manageable.
But yes, it’s a freaking casino. There’s no doubt The Venue was built to drive new faces to the slots, which will be inevitable considering you need to pass by several hundred of them to get to the music.
Corgan did not mention any of this during the two-hour, 15-minute show. Despite a back-to-back delivery of his band’s signature hits (“Today”/”Bullet With Butterfly Wings”) that were rushed through like obligations, the new period Pumpkins was not grounded in the dark, personal obsessions of its leader but instead found urgency in a meat and potatoes meal of distortion, drones, lengthy guitar explorations and songs that started in one place and then sprayed into several different directions. Featuring founding drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the new line-up — now a five-piece — played with more brawn and musical vitality than the original incarnation ever did.
The seltlist briefly looked backward, but didn’t stay long. Instead, Corgan mined “Zeitgeist” (Reprise), the comeback album, a recent EP, and unexpected fare like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” a Pink Floyd rarity that allowed the band to submerge into gauzy atmosphere.
Despite a three-set interlude of softer songs, which featured “Once Upon a Time,” a heartfelt letter to Corgan’s mother, the new era Pumpkins were more intent to cut loose with material that played with structure and labored under little pretense.
“United States,” a nearly 20-minute new song, put focus on Chamberlin as he shifted tempos to abandon the chaos the band created only to have it follow him again and again. “G.L.O.W.,” an unreleased new single, opened with a slinky bass until two guitars crashed in.
Corgan, wearing a silver metallic skirt, exuded a bandleader ruled by expediency than torment. “Hope and change: that’s us,” he joked. Later the band pulled out kazoos for “We Only Come Out At Night,” a “Mellon Collie” rarity that became a children’s romp.