There was a time, a much different time, when the Smashing Pumpkins were the biggest band in the world. Led by the bold, often bald Billy Corgan, the Chicago band bridged the gap between the disillusionment of the '90s grunge rebellion and the hook-banging optimism of a shinier tomorrow.
Using a rambunctious form of melodic mayhem, the Pumpkins urged you to trash the bedroom (and boredom) of your single-parent home — then forgive your working mother when she told you to clean it up.
Between now and then, however, the famously head-trippy Corgan has battled depression and bandmates, sending the Pumpkins into a state of perpetual fracture. As a result, Wednesday's sold-out sorta-reunion at cozy Ruth Eckerd Hall was more curiosity than comeback, as the 41-year-old former voice of his generation continued working out his demons for those who still care.
From the sound of it, many in the crowd of 2,039 still do, although let it be known that this was mostly a show for diehards only, as Corgan and his crew, including original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, made two-plus hours of noise akin to a 747 landing on your lanai. It was often brutal, a thrashing form-free melee of the singer's soaring yelp and his band's tumultuous playing. It was also often annoying, although give the band credit for giving it their all.
When there was a hook underneath the racket, the show was occasionally stellar. Taking the stage in a long skirt seemingly made out of Jiffy Pop foil, the smooth-pated Corgan launched into the prickly Tarantula (lyric: "I don't want to fight, every single night") then followed with the new G.L.O.W. (lyric: "I'm so alone …").
Despite the classy environs, it all had the feel of a reckless club show, the kind where it's mandatory to slosh beer on your shoes and your date. There weren't many "hits," but when Corgan dusted off a smattering of well-knowns, the audience went loopy, a refreshing reaction in the staid concert hall.
Corgan bunched up his best songs, trying to build a momentum that might carry through the obtuse stuff.
Early on, the Pumpkins played the searing ballad Mayonaise, from 1993's multiplatinum Siamese Dream. That was followed by the grandiose thunder of Tonight, Tonight, from 1995's ambitious Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
After a ramshackle barrage of forgettables, the Pumpkins offered up a quiet, near-acoustic segment. This included the bittersweet lament Today, which Corgan sweetly dedicated to "all our soldiers, spiritually, literally."
Before a confounding art-rock finale that often sounded like a fleet of ferrets scampering across a sea of guitars (oh, and a kazoo-driven cover of In the Summertime), Corgan unloaded the heavy-metal goodness of Bullet With Butterfly Wings, with that unforgettable chorus, "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage." It was sublime, a blast of what could have been.
At the very end of the show, Corgan brought out his father, a blues musician, who wailed on guitar. It was a sweet family moment. It was also really bizarre. Oh, that Billy. He may not sing for a generation anymore. But give him this: He's never boring.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.