One of the internet’s absolute best photos shows Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan riding a roller coaster. He’s having a terrible time. He doesn’t want to be there. Despite his apparent disdain for thrill rides, Corgan’s Friday night Xcel performance was its own roller coaster. Perfectly executed, nostalgia-inducing hits clashed with dragged-out lesser-known tracks and one bizarre cover.
In addition to the Smashing Pumpkins, Friday’s Spirits on Fire tour stop featured fellow ’90s alt-rock royalty Jane’s Addiction and genre-bending newcomer (by comparison) Poppy. The first two acts’ energy-packed performances contrasted starkly with the Pumpkins’ middling display.
Poppy first rose to fame as a YouTuber before launching her music career. She defies genre, combining elements of dream pop, nu-metal, industrial, and noise—often in a single song—to create a sound wholly unique to her but comparable to Sleigh Bells and 100 gecs.
While the 27-year-old has a strong fanbase and regularly sells out clubs, Friday’s largely Gen-X crowd didn’t immediately grasp her primarily Gen-Z appeal. The first half of her eight-song set generated little crowd response, but the tides eventually turned. Her set ended to big applause, with everyone sufficiently warmed up for Jane’s Addiction.
Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins walked onstage along with Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, who’s filling in for Dave Navarro on this tour. Unfortunately, Navarro is recovering from long COVID and can’t tour or judge trash polka tattoos at the moment. Navarro’s eclectic style has earned him a spot on many a “top guitarist” list, so Van Leeuwen had some pretty big fashionable combat boots to fill.
Avery began plucking the bassline to “Kettle Whistle.” Singer Perry Farrell entered, wearing a flashy gold and green nudie suit with matching gold boots, his charismatic flamboyance immediate. The nearly eight-minute opener faded out, and Farrell briefly addressed the crowd.
“To beauty! And getting in good trouble!”
The first few notes of “Whores” rang out, and three dancers dressed as Vegas showgirls appeared on the scaffolding behind Perkins. Throughout “Whores” and several other songs, the dancers writhed and thrusted across the stage. While this could easily come across as gross and exploitative… it somehow didn’t? The dancers genuinely looked like they were having a good time, playfully thrashing around and swinging from the scaffolding, teasing one another and Farrell. Farrell, for his part, treated the crowd to a smorgasbord of his own “dance” “moves.”
“Whores” wasn’t just our first glimpse at the unrelenting horniness of a Jane’s Addiction show; it was also our first opportunity to see if Van Leeuwen’s chops could stand up to Navarro’s. As he ripped through the solo, it was obvious they do, albeit with a little less panache.
Jane’s Addiction unleashed all their nostalgia-drenched big guns: “Ocean Size,” “Had a Dad,” “Ted, Just Admit It…,” “Three Days,” “Mountain Song,” and of course, “Jane Says.” While Farrell’s voice struggled to hit the high notes of “Jane Says” at first, after a big swig out of a wine bottle, his vocal cords loosened up, and he nailed the second chorus.
Farrell’s banter was simply unmatched. His chaotic himbo energy was all across the board and added a nice layer of nonsense.
After “Whores”: “C’mon you prudes. Applaud! Don’t you dig seeing some fucking hot flesh? I know I do!”
Introducing “Had a Dad”: “I believe in God. God is like our dad. We all had a dad!”
Noticing someone in one of the front rows: “Hey pal, you have quite a head of hair. Is that real? I dig it. No seriously, this cat here has a nice head of hair.”
More hair banter: “I’m down with mullets. Chicks dig cats with mullets because dudes with mullets are kind of ornery.”
After nine horny songs and a ton of ridiculous banter, Jane’s Addiction had been onstage for nearly an hour. And they hadn’t played the dog-barking song yet. Finally, the first few chords of “Been Caught Stealing” rang out (sadly sans barking dogs), and the Xcel lost its collective shit.
Now, Perry Farrell is 63 years old, meaning the first time he got caught stealing was when he was five in 1964. Apparently, that first brush with the law wasn’t enough to scare him straight.
“Doo doo doo-doo doo doo doo-doo I love stealing.”
With one final wave of his wine bottle, Farrell exited and left the wanting crowd to wait for the Pumpkins to Smash their way onstage.
If Jane’s Addiction is the soundtrack to a horny time, Billy Corgan is surely the mental image used to keep from climaxing prematurely. For the Spirits on Fire tour, the Alex Jones co-conspirator dons his spookiest black frock and paints his smug, sneering little face white every night. The resulting look falls somewhere between Uncle Fester, Death from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Powder.
The current Pumpkins lineup consists of Corgan on guitar and vocals, guitarists James Iha and Jeff Schroeder, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Jack Bates handles touring bass duties, while Katie Cole provides live backing vocals.
As the sextet filed on stage, the crowd anxiously waited to hear which classic Pumpkins hit Corgan would choose as the set’s opener. Would he let the rat out of the cage right away? Would he transport us back to 1979? Would he let us know which day is the greatest he’s ever known?
Of course not.
Rather than kick things off with a beloved classic, Corgan began strumming the opening chords to “Empires,” an unreleased song from their forthcoming album Atum: Act One. Opening a set with a brand-new song is just fine for some bands, welcomed even. But for a band with Smashing Pumpkins’ recent track record of underwhelming albums, it’s a bold move indeed.
Rhythmically, “Empires” is pretty simple, save for some fancy guitar work by Schroeder sprinkled throughout. While it’s certainly not the worst opening track they could’ve played, it was still an odd choice—the first of several throughout the set.
Following “Empires,” Corgan gave the people what they wanted. At the utterance of “the world is a vampire,” the Xcel erupted. While “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” felt slightly sped up and lacking in energy, they followed it up with a flawless rendition of “Today,” the first of three Siamese Dream tracks in the set.
“Today” rolled right into a terrific performance of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’s “We Only Come Out At Night,” followed by the dancey, synth-laden title track of 2020’s CYR. On the album version of “CYR,” Corgan pushes his voice to do things it just isn’t meant to do. Thankfully, he sticks to a more comfortable range live, making the song much more enjoyable.
The second odd choice of the evening came in the form of a heavy, almost doom-metal twist on the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” its chorus wholly unrecognizable from the original. It was nearly gimmicky enough to work, but ultimately was just weird. As the real-life Billy Corgan sang over Bates’ bassline, five digital Billies joined him on the screen for a total of six Billy Corgans onstage. That’s at least five too many Billies if you ask me.
The first big lull of the set came during “Solara.” While an extended bridge allowed Chamberlin to shine, it dragged on too long. Even Corgan seemed bored as he took the opportunity to retreat to his amp and munch on some chips (presumably made of human skin).
A few songs later, all but Corgan and Iha exited the stage. “We’ve been a band for 34 years,” Corgan proclaimed, forcing many in the crowd to reckon with their age. “This next song is a thank you for those 34 years.”
Iha and Corgan’s acoustic version of “Tonight, Tonight” was perfect. It was sincere and heartfelt, and Corgan’s voice was the best it sounded all night. A sea of cell phone lights illuminated the arena. It was truly a beautiful moment and a definite highlight of the evening.
After back-to-back songs off of Machina (another noticeable lull), Iha addressed the crowd, introducing the band. In addition to absolutely wailing on his guitar like the juggernaut that he is, Iha provided much of the night’s banter—proving that he is, in fact, the real frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins.
The Machina lull quickly turned around as Chamberlin hit a few drum rolls signifying the start of “Cherub Rock,” the lead single off Siamese Dream. Next came Mellon Collie hits “Zero” and “1979.” This three-song block was flawless and rivaled “Tonight, Tonight” for the best part of the show. Corgan and Iha’s guitar harmonies were perfectly in sync, the energy onstage matched that of the crowd, and the nostalgia was through the roof. It also seemed to be Corgan’s favorite part of the set. He was more playful and looser than at any other point in the show, and a genuine smile replaced his usual sullen expression.
The final odd choice came during the penultimate song in the set, “Beguiled.” The song’s music video played on the massive screen as the band played along. The video parades a cast of characters, including a muscly shirtless guy and a woman in short shorts arguing with one another. Suddenly, in a real Last Action Hero type of situation, the shirtless man and short shorts woman were onstage having a “real” argument that ended with her knocking him out and storming offstage. It was all very corny.
Visually, the entire set was spectacular. The massive screen flashed everything from lyrics to music videos to archival footage of the band in their heyday. Coupled with the constantly moving, color-changing spotlights, it created an impressive stage production fit for a band of the Pumpkins’ stature.
Sonically, on the other hand, the Smashing Pumpkins were inconsistent at best. At times, they sounded perfect and had the energy to match. But a few songs felt sped up and lifeless, and the multiple lulls could’ve easily been avoided by cutting a few songs. They certainly proved they can still put on a super loud show, but also made a strong case that louder isn’t always better, as the mix was often muddy and sounded like a wall of noise.
Despite the low points in the set, the Smashing Pumpkins did deliver on the songs that matter. For a band that’s never really been known to be particularly great live, that’s a pretty huge victory.
Jane’s Addiction Setlist
Had a Dad
Ted, Just Admit It…
Been Caught Stealing
Smashing Pumpkins Setlist
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
We Only Come Out At Night
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads cover)
Stand Inside Your Love
I of the Mourning