The dusty Madrid festival site looked a bit like a giant sandpit, too
Smashing Pumpkins look like they’re playing inside of an enormous toy box. Behind the band tower three massive doll-like figures, Victorian-era gothic faux wooden constructs variously dappled with different coloured lights, reflecting the mood of the music that they accompany, sparkling quickly during the breakneck guitar solo that roars through ‘Cherub Rock’ and studded with spotlights during spidery middle-eight in ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’.
For his part, enveloped in a black uniform that’s part-dress, part-cape, the initials ‘SP’ emblazoned on the arm, frontman Billy Corgan resembles Sid the naughty kid from Toy Story, all grown up, stalking the stage with a grin, ready to make some mischief.
The band seem relaxed, loose, ready to have a good time. Founding members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin (on guitar and drums respectively) are present and correct, making this almost pure Pumpkins, though original bassist D’Arcy Wretzky is sadly absent amidst bitterness between her and the rest of the group. Corgan’s long played the difficult genius, the overbearing control freak, more inclined to follow his own muse than attempt to please anyone else, but tonight he’s largely on crowd-appeasing form.
The front section of the show is perhaps a little too loaded with obscure newbies from 2018’s album ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1’ and 2014’s ‘Monument To An Elegy’, though even this run courses with the scything ‘Zero’, a song laced with the quintessential Corgan lyric: “I’m in love with my sadness.” Corgan has spent three decades pumping his claustrophobic nihilism up into grandiose grunge and metal balladry, and this enormous audience – perhaps the densest so far at this year’s Mad Cool festival – roars his cinematic proclamations back at the band during the set’s stellar, hit-packed second half.
Corgan plays the lushly melancholic ‘Disarm’ on a white acoustic guitar stamped with a black star, before the lights morph maroon throughout the pulsing drum intro to the electro-goth banger ‘Ava Adore’ – making the stage briefly resemble a haunted fun fair – to which he impishly changes the words to, “You’ll be perfect just like WPC,” referencing his own initials. What a little scamp.
‘1979’, one of the greatest songs ever written, an understated, shimmering pop beauty about life, love and the ever-presence of the past, is an inevitable highlight. When the singer croons, in that reedy, ghostly voice, “We don’t know just where our bones will rest / To dust, I guess”, the screen beside the stage depicts a guy in the front row, overwhelmed, in raptures. You know how he feels. Before the final chorus, Corgan belts out, “Last one!”, this jazz-hands approach still surprising and lovely to see.
It beats that time when, at Leeds Festival 2007, this writer saw him perform a dour solo acoustic version of the song. The good times continue to roll when James Iha indulges in a weird stand-up routine: “Thank you for staying out late. Well, it’s not late because it’s Spain. This is a beautiful place. Beautiful and hot. Are you having a reasonable time? One thumb up? Two thumbs up?” He explains that he’s been marooned in a nearby hotel for four days and ate in the same restaurant for every single meal. “’Hey James!’” he asks, doing his best Jerry Seinfeld impression. “’Where did you eat today?’”
James Iha probably won’t get a Netflix special any time soon, but it’s nice to see him cut loose and have a good time. For so long this band was blighted by internal strife, and they often insisted on playing obscure sets.
But this Pumpkins hit parade, which twinkles with the swooning ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and bows out with the life-affirming ‘Today’, suggests that they’ve found some peace (although regrettably there’s no rendition of ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)’, the sweet riff on ‘1979’ from that last album). The next crowd-pleaser would be for D’Arcy to re-enter the fold, and for the whole gang to play nice together again.