By RACHEL SWAN
Friday, Oct. 12, 2012
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Revisiting an eighth grade dance in a Siamese Dream T-Shirt.
Billy Corgan has grown bulkier in the two decades since Smashing Pumpkins first rose to national prominence. His voice has coarsened, his cheeks sag, and he cuts a much more Yoda-like figure, with a head that could either be a giant egg or a large, shining orb. Yet his band -- which has none of the same personnel as it did in 1993, save for Corgan himself -- looks uncannily like the first iteration of Smashing Pumpkins.
For all his lip service to "rebuilding" (a buzzword he uses in describing the Pumpkins' comeback), Corgan will probably never abandon the old template: A foxy female bassist (originally D'Arcy Wretzky, then Melissa Auf der Maur, and now, Nicole Fiorentino), a fey but rakishly handsome rhythm guitarist (James Iha in the '90s, later supplanted by Jeff Schroder), and a rather unmemorable but extremely reliable drummer (previously Jimmy Chamberlin, now Mike Byrne). Performing at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Friday, the new Pumpkins were a spectral version of the old Pumpkins. Corgan touts the new band as a rebirth, but, like most grizzled alt rockers, he appears to be coasting on past success.
That said, he has enough staying power to pack a large San Francisco venue with other old codgers -- old enough, at least, to remember the halcyon days when grunge was the center of gravity for pop music, and it was actually considered "cool" to build a Smashing Pumpkins fansite on Geocities. After a 40-minute set by Christian rock band Anberlin, the members of Smashing Pumpkins emerged to play their new album, Oceania, all the way through, kicking off with a cloying swell of chords and then plowing through 13 songs with barely a breath in between.
Oceania came out in June, and it's still new enough to be unfamiliar, even to the most ardent Pumpkins fans. There was no song that made the crowd collectively list forward or flick lighters in the air -- some people stared at Corgan with the same respectful awe they might lend to a particularly weird piece of art at SFMOMA.
He blithely ignored them.
Corgan has certainly endured his share of personal tragedies over the years -- band break-ups, abortive projects, divorce, death -- and yet over time he's become more staid and inscrutable. Chalk it up to age (Billy Corgan is now the kind of guy who breaks up a phone interview to play with his cats), or fatigue (Billy Corgan has been in this game for 24 years, now), or the old cliché that hardship will ossify a human soul. Whatever the case, it's made him less of a rock star, and more the kind of artist who pushes through a very well-rehearsed set without ever engaging his audience.
Singing in the same gnarled, feline yowl that made Smashing Pumpkins so memorable 20 years ago, Corgan never seemed conscious that his voice was the main thing. He traded two-part harmonies with Fiorentino, bent his head so that it glowed like a Japanese lantern, and croaked a couple perfunctory "thank yous." For the first 90 minutes of a more than two-hour set, he had all the stage presence of a man who'd prefer to be sitting alone in a stairwell. "I'm so alone, so alone," he moaned on the album's title track, in a tone that seemed more smug than self-pitying.