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Smashing Pumpkins look forward and bring the noise to SF's Bill Graham

Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan has always insisted that his band’s reunion is anything but a nostalgia act. Half an hour into the show at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last Friday, Corgan joked with the crowd, “We’ll play some classics, like ‘Jeremy,’ ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ ‘Black Hole Sun,’ that Dave Matthews Band song ‘Crash.’ Would you like that?” Corgan knows that critics view him as a has-been, and this tour—in which the band starts each show by performing its new album, “Oceania,” in its entirety—aims to silence those critics.

As any Pumpkins fan knows, the band isn’t quite what it used to be, in the most literal sense—Corgan is the only original member of the group still left, with Jeff Schroeder replacing James Iha on guitar, Nicole Fiorentino replacing D’arcy Wretzky on bass and 22-year-old Mike Byrne replacing veteran Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. Corgan has challenged critics on that point, too, noting that he wrote most of the band’s music to begin with, though “Oceania” lacks the softer, more nuanced touch that the original band members helped inject on earlier albums.

By the ninth song of the set, “Pale Horse,” even the most incredibly obnoxious, unflaggingly energetic, die-hard fanatic in the crowd (who happened to be standing right next to yours truly) seemed sedated and bored after a string of down-tempo, bland songs. The band woke up the audience a bit with “The Chimera,” a surprisingly good “Oceania” track that includes some stylistic nods to the band’s glory days, and “Inkless,” another “Oceania” song that’s a bit reminiscent of “Hummer” from the band’s 1993 breakthrough album, “Siamese Dream.”

Never shying from spectacle, the group supported its stage show with a huge ball of light suspended behind it, which featured a light display that was at times fun to watch and other times completely baffling: during title track “Oceania,” for example, the globe featured a sea turtle swimming by an octopus.

The group closed out the first part of its set with “Wildflower,” the final track on “Oceania” that’s among the Pumpkins’ absolute worst songs. Before launching into the previously promised classics, the band surprised the crowd with a cover of David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom,” followed by the delectable, psychotically charged “X.Y.U.” from 1995’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Corgan mustered much of the energy and passion of the good ol’ days, though his voice (understandably) doesn’t carry the same heaviness and power as it used to—but hats off to him for trying a tough song in the first place.

From there on out, the band essentially paraded its greatest hits, including crowd favorites “Disarm” and “Tonight, Tonight.” Perhaps unsurprisingly after all these years, the hits felt a bit uninspired, as the band seemed to rush “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and couldn’t make up its mind whether “Tonight, Tonight” should feel more like a rock song or a lullaby (either of which would have been acceptable).

As he has for years (especially since the band’s restart in 2005), Corgan walked the line between grateful musician and obnoxious rock star. Near the end of the show, he proclaimed that the band would wrap up soon “because we’ve got stuff to do,” before making nice and telling the audience that he “has some really great fans.” Corgan also shared some of his typical, wry commentary, remarking that “Nobody wants to listen to music anymore—they want an experience. If you pay $5,000, you get to have sex with Mike… And I’ll tell you what I think of you for free!”

After closing the regular set with “Today,” the Pumpkins returned for a three-song encore, highlighted by a solid rendition of “Ava Adore” that ended with a guitar solo duel between Corgan and Schroeder, who has become increasingly comfortable over the years as a James Iha stand-in who has far more technical chops than his predecessor (but sometimes seemed to dominate the live sound a bit too much). Check out the video of the guitar duel above.

The band closed the over two-hour show with Siamese Dream hit “Cherub Rock.”

To his credit, Corgan is not content to rest on his laurels. The band played a somewhat predictable selection of its greatest hits, but not until it had already played its new album all the way through, likely over the unspoken objections of some of the group’s older fans. He’s certainly not afraid to follow his artistic instinct, even when it’s unpopular. Corgan still has the flair and the verve he always did, and his band has the skill and the guts to back him up—and that’s more than most of the nostalgia acts can say these days.

Set List:

1. Quasar

2. Panopticon

3. The Celestials

4. Violet Rays

5. My Love Is Winter

6. One Diamond, One Heart

7. Pinwheels

8. Oceania

9. Pale Horse

10. The Chimera

11. Glissandra

12. Inkless

13. Wildflower

14. Ground Control to Major Tom (David Bowie cover)

15. X.Y.U.

16. Disarm

17. Tonight, Tonight

18. Bullet with Butterfly Wings

19. Song for a Son

20. Today

Encore

1. Zero

2. Ava Adore

3. Cherub Rock