Chicago met the new Smashing Pumpkins roster last year in a charity show where the faceless newcomers surrounding the always-identifiable, Charlie Brown-bald singer Billy Corgan acquitted themselves through most of the band's big 1990s hits, from "Tonight, Tonight" to "Today" and on back to "1979."
The perennial Pumpkins visit for 2011, however, had a largely different agenda. Corgan also brought along some old friends for an encore surprise.
Friday night's concert at the Riviera Theatre found Corgan and his hired hands -- guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne -- light on hits (none of the above), heavy on deep cuts and rarities ("Starla," "Geek U.S.A.," "Frail & Bezdazzled," "For Martha," etc.) and trying out new material ahead of the band's first album in four years, "Oceania," due early in 2012.
Nostalgic fans got their wayback machine -- the route was just a little left of center. Chalk up Corgan's reminiscent set list to his recent work curating reissues of the Pumpkins catalog, beginning with releases later this year of "Gish" and "Siamese Dream" and the rest of the freshened-up albums trickling out through 2013.
He's also been slaving over ambitious new music. Corgan, 44, has been releasing songs from a 44-track concept album, "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope," in batches online (a dozen songs thus far, which hasn't worked as well as he'd hoped). "Oceania," he says, is an album of material from within that same concept, so these 13 will count against the 44-song target.
For the upcoming album's watery title track Friday night, Corgan stepped to a Mellotron-like keyboard and added churchy sci-fi sounds to the pendulous three-part suite. Many of the new tunes sounded lighter, brighter, melodious -- a welcome contrast against the band's typical template of angsty rage.
Both horizons seem to have re-energized Corgan. He never spoke during the main set, but he smiled often. He shredded his guitar so hard and so long, lengthening most songs via Rush-worthy prog-rock solos, that just as he sang "I feel no pain" in "Silverf---," he had to shake out his right hand, aching from the previous pummeling riffs. Through "Siva," Corgan traded licks with Schroeder and stretched out the song's inherent dynamic tension to its breaking point.
For an encore, Corgan returned to the stage with a different band -- Catherine, a Chicago shoegaze band that were Pumpkins contemporaries in the mid-'90s and included the husband of original Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy Wretzky. Corgan announced this would be the first time the group had played together in 16 years, and he joined them on guitar through two songs.
The new Pumpkins, though, despite the crusty old band name, are clearly Commander Corgan & Co. He led the proceedings firmly, and his band watched him for every move. He took most of the spotlighted guitar jams himself (and there were many throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show; Corgan always goes on a little long). He's also clearly still enamored of his own thankless genius. During the encore, he quipped, "Back in the day, when we were writing 'Siamese Dream' -- or, rather, when I was writing 'Siamese Dream' ..." In recent interviews, he feels the same, frequently using singular pronouns to declare "Oceania" as the "best album I've ever done." But fly it as a solo record? No siree.
Friday's show was part of a quick, 12-city jaunt. The big go-round will come next year -- including Lollapalooza, I predict. If it doesn't work out, hey, Corgan just started his own professional wrestling company (no joke). At least he and Bob Mould have that as a plan B.
Smashing Pumpkins set list Friday night:
"Quasar" / "Stella Polaris and the People Mover" / "Panopticon"
"Frail and Bedazzled"
"Thru the Eyes of Ruby"
"My Love Is Winter"
Two-song reunion of the band Catherine
"Bullet With Butterfly Wings"