The O2 Is A Vampire As Smashing Pumpkins Exsanguinate In London

“You might have heard, I have a reputation. You heard about that James?” barks Billy Corgan, grinning at his Pumpkins’ co-founder and sometimes Perfect Circle guitarist James Iha. And boy does he. The 57-year-old frontman and creative driving force behind legendary Chicago rockers The Smashing Pumpkins has been in the music news as much for his behaviours as for his musical output for decades.

His most recent headlines involve him being outspoken about not playing hits or fan favourites at shows despite them being declared “classics”. And so it is with a grin he makes the reputation claim, ahead of the band delivering a gorgeous rendition of Siamese Dream classic Mayonaise, the dreamy dual guitar-led intro moving headfirst into classic slow-drive rock, rounded out by original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and newcomers Jack Bates on bass, former Nylon Pink star Kiki Wong taking up guitars (for only her second live outing with the group) and Australian Katie Cole on keys and backing vocals.

The Smashing Pumpkins @ The O2

The Smashing Pumpkins @ The O2 (Kalpesh Patel)
The Smashing Pumpkins @ The O2 (Kalpesh Patel)

Selling out stadium and arena shows in the mid-2020s seems to have shifted squarely into the domain of today’s huge pop stars with rock acts struggling to fill out the large spaces, as has been demonstrated by Thirty Seconds To Mars’ half-empty O2 Arena show just last week or The Black Keys’ recently cancelled US arena tour. And so bands such as tonight’s double-headline outing of LA-hailing Weezer and The Smashing Pumpkins, both rising quickly during the post-grunge rock era of the late 1990s (or rather their management) are taking to partnering up to fill out these spaces and continue delivering epic shows to the masses, as was demonstrated by Green Day’s recent Hella Mega Tour which had the Bay Area punk rock outfit selling out stadiums alongside Weezer and Fall Out Boy.

But tonight’s circa £150 ticket prices, which would have seemed ridiculous even a decade ago but are necessary to put on such events in today’s twisted economy, mean a sell-out like tonight’s show requires something more than special, and Corgan’s men and women more than deliver.

Arriving on the massive O2 Arena stage to the title track of the band’s recent opus, Atum, they kick off with a superbly delivered, frantic The Everlasting Gaze, the sole cut tonight from 2000 LP Machina/The Machines Of God before diving straight into Doomsday Clock from Pumpkins’ first post-Zwan and Corgan’s solo TheFutureEmbrace LP Zeitgeist. The sole cover of tonight’s set is delivered next by way of U2’s 1991 LP Achtung Baby opener Zoo Station.

But it is the delicately plucked, distinctive guitar intro of breakthrough 1993 single Today that garners the biggest cheer of the night so far, moshers at the front of the arena throwing themselves into one another with abandon while phones are raised with videos being recorded across the rest of the arena. Similarly delicate and distinctive guitars of seminal double LP Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness cut Thru The Eyes Of Ruby extracts wows from the crowd as the tune pivots from gentle to heavy throughout, the troupe slowing things down with Corgan, Iha and Wong delivering a gorgeously whalesong-esque outro.

“Thank you London” bellows the white-suited Iha, stepping into the spotlight for the first time tonight and taking over MC duties, a responsibility he shares with Corgan throughout the night. “We’re gonna rock another four hours, so be prepared” he teases as the synths kick off Atum tune Spellbinding. And while delivered with gusto, it falls flat with the crowd (largely made up of ’80s and ’90s kids) before the truly spellbinding 1996 single Tonight, Tonight lifts folks out of their seats once more. 1998 single Ava Adore reverberates astonishingly around The O2 before the bells come out for huge 1994 single Disarm, Corgan & co. once again delivering the hits for the fans that have packed out this 20,000 capacity North Greenwich space, their voices as audible as the frontman’s very distinctive own, regardless of the fact that there are no flanking screens replaying the stage action for those at the very rear to see, a misstep perhaps for this tour’s production.

Keyboard-led, delicate Springtimes from Atum’s Act Two LP is delivered with Katie Cole stepping up to take on co-lead vocal duties, but a newer tune once again falling flat with this old-school audience. After Mayonaise lifts the spirits at The O2, they’re further invigorated with the thundering Bullet With The Butterfly Wings, storming beats from Jimmy Chamberlin leading into opening line “The World Is A Vampire ” growled by Corgan, the standing crowd bouncing as hard as they can with each round of the song’s infamous chorus: “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”. A belting guitar intro kicks off 2023 single Empires while crunchy metal Atum tune Beguiled provides the cuteness window, with Corgan’s children, Augustus (8) and Philomena (5), joining him on stage to dance along with the number. Awwww!

Breezy Mellon Collie single 1979 is introduced with Cole’s keys and Chamberlin’s distinctive electronic drums from the 1996 US alt. rock charts mainstay, camera phones raised high across the arena as Corgan encourages, screaming “sing it with us!”, and we do, at top lung capacity. Floaty Birch Grove and rousing Panopticon give us tonight’s only flavours of the band’s CYR and Oceania LPs respectively, before we’re treated to the briefest excerpts of Ava Adore cut Shame. Perhaps the real shame is that we’re not gifted more from the beautiful 1998 LP tonight.

Chamberlin pounds his mammoth drum set as Mellon Collie’s Jellybaby has the crowd destroying each other once more, a fan with a distinctive coloured mohawk leaning over the barricade stage-centre nodding aggressively along before the slow-build Rhinoceros from debut LP Gish takes us back to the very beginning of our love affair with this seminal 1990s band, Manchester-hailing Jack Bates (son of Joy Division and New Order’s Peter Hook no less!) channelling original bassist D’arcy Wretzky’s storming Stiltskin-esque rising bass part as Iha and Wong take the guitars into the stratosphere.

Bass-led Zeitgeist outtake Gossamar provides a respite, delicious but extravagant guitar solos aplenty dragging out the number in classic Corgan “reputation” style before the Pumpkins’ mammoth set is rounded out with massive Siamese Dream tune Cherub Rock and the SP T-Shirt-influencing Mellon Collie hit Zero, the band clocking off just seconds after the strict, fine-incurring 11pm venue curfew without once stepping off their stage.

And we’re buzzing. All 20,000 of us, from the very front of the floor standing area to the backs of the nose-bleed seated blocks, where fans dared to stand for fear of vertigo proving that these bands, some might now call legacy rock, can bring it to such massive audiences and without the theatrics of huge productions which have begun to become the expectation at arena and stadium rock shows – think the flamethrowers employed by Thirty Seconds To Mars and Fall Out Boy to the huge stage props and moving platforms we see at shows from the likes of KISS and Muse. Ultimately, it all comes down to the music. And while some of Smashing Pumpkins’ newer material fell flat with this audience, the selections made from their extensive catalogue tonight proved the naysayers wrong, and Billy Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin right.

Live review & photography of The Smashing Pumpkins at The O2, London on 8th June 2024 by Kalpesh Patel.

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