Giving the fans what they want is not a good business model.
That's what Billy Corgan told us earlier this week, explaining how he refused to allow Smashing Pumpkins become a nostalgia act.
Most artists achieve that by sprinkling a half-dozen new songs somewhere into the middle of the set. This is sometimes known as "the bathroom break."
At Stage AE Thursday night, the Pumpkins opened with "Quasar," the rumbling space-rocker that opens "Oceania," and the band proceeded to play the new album for the first hour-plus of the evening. Fans who didn't know the record or hadn't read about the tour must have felt like they wandered into The Twilight Zone, at least until Mr. Corgan stopped to explain.
"Hopefully it will be something to brag about someday," he said of the experience, adding wryly, "in a world of no meaning."
New albums from old bands rarely become bragging-rights classics, but "Oceania" is good one, much in line with late '90s Pumpkins, and the revamped version of the Pumpkins has become a tight and explosive unit. Among the many standouts were "The Celestials," with its dreamy wash of keyboards; the simple and beautiful love song "One Diamond, One Heart," with its impassioned mantra of "I'm always on your side"; the symphonic "Pale Horse"; and the frenetic, shoegazer "The Chimera," which sounded like a greatest hit.
The Pumpkins brought a stunning visual in a 3-D globe-shaped screen (behind Mr. Corgan's own substantial dome) projecting abstract animation or bizarre old footage for each song. The packed crowd was polite though a bit disengaged throughout the reading of "Oceania."
The Pumpkins then extended the space-rock vibe by segueing out with a dramatic cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" that grabbed the crowd immediately. Then it was time to give the people what they wanted, starting with "X.Y.U." from the newly reissued "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," a song that brought out the screaming grunge rocker in Mr. Corgan.
The frontman stopped late in the set to quiz Jeff Schroeder on what the Pittsburgh Pirates' theme song was in '79 (the guitarist didn't know it was "We Are Family"). It wasn't the set-up for "1979" or a Pointer Sisters cover. It was just local banter, and the Pumpkins filled out the hits portion with the early favorite "Disarm," the majestic "Tonight, Tonight" and the rat-in-a-cage rage of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings."
After slowing down with the darker closers "The Dream Machine" and "Hummer," the Pumpkins unleashed the full guitar fury and thundered through the encores of "Ava Adore," "Cherub Rock" and "Zero" with an intensity that couldn't be mistaken for nostalgia.
In the end, mixing the old and new for two hours clearly would have improved the overall pacing, but you can't help but admire Mr. Corgan for pushing things forward and making a case for Smashing Pumpkins as a band that it still matters.