With so many high-profile shows competing to close out SXSW – and Prince and Justin Timberlake’s attracting the most desperate ticket-seekers – the Smashing Pumpkins’ Saturday night set at Red Bull’s Sound Select: 120 Hours stage attracted many of the band’s diehard fans, many of whom wouldn’t think twice about following Billy Corgan off a bridge if he asked. He didn’t, luckily, and the Pumpkins’ outspoken frontman – who turned 46 years old as the clock struck midnight – led an all-out musical assault on the festival, barely stopping for a breath within their nearly two-hour set.
Of course, Corgan has a bit of a history of making waves at this festival; in a Q&A with Brian Solis last year, he called new artists “strippers” and claimed he’d need to set himself on fire in order to grab the attention of record labels and fans had the Pumpkins be trying to break in to the industry today. But that didn’t stop him from leading his band out for this year’s installment for nearly two-hour show that combined hits that ranged from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” to the title track from the band’s most recent work, Oceania (with it’s “I’m better than I ever was” lyric ringing particularly poignantly). The small venue gave the affair a much more intimate feel than the stadium shows the band had played over the past decade or so, though some sound issues meant that Corgan’s vocals wound up lost in the mix for a good portion of the evening.
The onslaught lifted momentarily when Corgan led the band through a rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” while the familiar strains of “Tonight, Tonight” were met with a rapturous singalong and “Pale Horse” and “Ava Adore” allowed the band to flex its heavy rock muscles; even more than two decades past their breakthrough in the early 1990s, the vitality of Corgan’s primal scream remains largely intact, and he held no qualms about unleashing it or unveiling his considerable guitar skills into the night sky.
As “United States” helped wind down the set, strains of “happy birthday” from Pumpkins diehards could be heard between songs and filtering down the street after the band delivered “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” as their encore. It didn’t have the cool sexuality or the breezy R&B of a Prince or Timberlake performance, but to Pumpkins fans, that hardly mattered; a Corgan going strong into his mid-40s kept the spirit of the Pumpkins alive as the last dregs of SXSW filtered out. He may not be filled with the same youthful rage that drove “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in to the public consciousness, but Corgan and the Pumpkins still have much of the energy that got them to the forefront of Nineties rock in the first place.