They say nostalgia waves come at the 20-year mark, so it makes sense that 2016 would see ’90s counterculture icons Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair touring together despite having fairly disparate fanbases back in the day. Following a memorable L.A. stop that found former Pumpkins guitarist James Iha playing with the band for the first time in 16 years, the Plainsong Tour rolled into New York City’s Beacon Theater on Tuesday, April 5, for the second of three shows.
Although Iha didn’t grace the tour with his presence on Tuesday, the Gen X audience didn’t seem disappointed. While younger audiences have come to expect special guests and Snapchat-worthy moments, the crowd of thirty- and forty-somethings at the lush Upper West Side venue seemed content to passionately belt out the lyrics to the songs of their disaffected youth (while remaining seated) without the need for surprise star power.
Although the theater was packed when the Pumpkins hit the stage, Phair opened the night to a tragically half-full theater. It was the latecomers’ loss — Phair’s acoustic opener was arguably more fascinating than the Pumpkins’ two-hour set. While her voice sounds exactly the same as it did on recordings done 20 years ago, she’s toyed around with the guitar arrangement on a few of the songs in the years since, either to suit her solo guitar format for the night or simply to mix things up.
The acoustic setup surprisingly suited her fuzz-free version of “Supernova,” and Liz Phair singles “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?” sounded sturdier than you’d expect without the studio polish of that 2003 self-titled album. Phair also played a new song, entitled “Our Dog Days Behind Us,” which she described as both a love song and a love song to Chicago. Check out a recent performance of that song below (video is not from the NYC show).
As for the main act, the Pumpkins turned the crowd from attentive to ecstatic. Billy Corgan opened the show with a few solo acoustic songs (including “Stumbleine” and “Tonight, Tonight”) before bringing out a second guitarist to cover the late David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” As you might expect, his voice comfortably occupies the Bowie freak-folk tune, and his backup guitarist’s flourishes of Spanish strumming added a nice touch. A second Bowie tribute of sorts closed the evening, with the Pumpkins covering the Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” a song commonly (though incorrectly) associated with Angela Bowie.
While one classic artist covering another might be the stuff that online headlines are made of, the audience wasn’t there to hear Corgan interpret four-decade-old rock songs — they were there to bask in the glory of two-decade-old rock songs.
So when he announced the band would embark on a suite of songs from 1993’s Siamese Dream, the noise that issued forth from the crowd sounded less like cheering and more like religious groveling, as if the crowd was giving thanks to a Gen X god for reading from their favorite book of alt-rock psalms.
But Corgan has made it clear for years he’s not content to be a golden oldies jukebox artist, and to that end he recast several of the Siamese songs. The most moving of which was his lo-fi version of “Disarm,” where he replaced the orchestral flourishes of the album version with a haunting, simple electric organ.
The only thing missing from the ’90s throwback night was brooding, misguided anger — but even that reared its head for a brief moment. Toward the end of the show, Corgan took a moment to address someone in the crowd who had presumably been talking to him throughout the show. “What row are you in, the second row?” Corgan shouted. “I can still kick you in the face from the second row.” Then, with a laugh, the wrestling enthusiast switched to tea shop owner mode and added, “No, I’m a Zen person now.”