For much of the early 2000s, Billy Corgan had trouble embracing his legacy as a grunge god: The Smashing Pumpkins frontman regularly railed against his own fans, tangled with the press and made no secret of his disdain for trotting out his old band’s biggest hits. But in making 2012’s Oceania, his views began to shift. “Something’s happening,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “I’ve played a lot of shows and you know when it’s going up and you know when it’s going down and you know when it’s going nowhere. It’s definitely going up.”
It was with this rejuvenated, lively spirit that the 47-year-old singer played a rare Saturday evening solo show at the Ravinia Festival in the leafy Chicago suburb of Highland Park – his only scheduled gig of 2014. Wearing a blazer and occasionally accompanied by Pumpkins’ guitarist Jeff Schroeder – Corgan crossed his career with a 27-song set that included songs from Zwan, his solo years and that band he played in with Jeff.
Corgan, his voice solidly preserved, debuted a piano tribute to Chicago at the outset of the evening. Popular Siamese Dream fare like “Today” and “Disarm” were both re-imagined as gentle, tempered acoustic charmers, and solo records such as the arpeggio-laden “Prairie Song” and the Future Embrace cut “Now (And Then)” were played for the first time since 2005. Likewise, the thrashing Machina/The Machines of Gods cut “The Crying Tree of Mercury” was brought out for the first time since 1999, and “Burnt Orange Black,” a fiery new solo track featuring a rare (and tasteful) guitar solo, had never been played at all.
The night’s unquestioned centerpiece, though, was a nine-song suite dedicated exclusively to the Pumpkins’ 1995 Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This portion of the show included never-before-performed Mellon Collie outtake “Methusela” – the ode to his father, Corgan explained, was once too personal to even demo for producers Alan Moulder and Flood – and reserved yet emotionally jarring acoustic takes on “Muzzle” and “Galapagos” and “Tonight Tonight.” The gorgeous “1979,” boosted by a backing drum track, felt tinny and flat by comparison
“You guys are too kind,” Corgan told the crowd several times throughout the night, brimming with satisfaction and delight. For a man who moped his way through much of the Nineties and once seemed at risk of fading entirely from the spotlight, one couldn’t help but appreciate Corgan’s magnificent smile.