At the first of 11 sold-out shows at San Francisco’s Fillmore, the Smashing Pumpkins lived up to leader Billy Corgan’s reputation for excess. The ’90s alt-rock icons hadn’t played the historic San Francisco venue since April 1994, when it was a big deal to have such an ascendant act (then exploding in popularity in the wake of 1993’s breakthrough Siamese Dream) host the nightclub’s reopening following 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 death of legendary promoter Bill Graham. And so the band returned with appropriate largess to play a three-hour show that ended shortly after 1 AM.
“Welcome to our band practice,” Corgan said after the conclusion of the long and winding Pisces Iscariot cut “Starla,” the first song of the night to draw an unabashedly animated crowd response. In his typically challenging way, Corgan opened the show with the warlike epic “United States” as well as two other bleak metallic tracks from the just-released Zeitgeist. Expectant fans soon grew restless: During the moody “Blue Skies Bring Tears” from 1999’s less popular Machina/The Machines of God, a heckler at the back repeatedly yelled, “C’mon, play some music!”
The set’s dark cloud lifted as the quintet — Corgan and longtime Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin together with new members Ginger Reyes on bass, Jeff Schroeder on guitar and Lisa Harriton on keyboards — volleyed into the classic and eternally joyous “Today.” For nearly the length of an ordinary set, the reconstituted Pumpkins sustained the crowd’s approval with a mix of classics like “Tonight, Tonight,” its gentle B-side “Rotten Apples” and similarly tuneful new material. Emphasizing that even this reunion of sorts was essentially a Corgan showcase, the boss Pumpkin played some of these welcome sweet ballads by himself on acoustic guitar.
It was when the entire band returned for Machina‘s lengthy “Glass and the Ghost Children” that the pacing problems resumed. Standing several feet apart beneath a massive high-tech lighting rig clearly designed for stadiums, the band members rarely reacted to one another either visually or musically. Although the fans’ enthusiasm returned whenever the Zeitgeist-heavy set list winded back to peak-era hits like “Zero,” much of the performance relied on slow and abrasive guitar solos that grew increasingly alike as the set wandered. The sole encore, a half-hour rendition of the Zeitgeist outtake “Gossamer,” rambled until Corgan abruptly ended the jam and someone suddenly brought up the house lights. Don’t call it a comeback — yet.