Up until recently, Billy Corgan was not only disinterested in trotting out Smashing Pumpkins' most beloved songs—he was unapologetically sickened at the thought. Never forget that Corgan was the guy who invited people onstage to verbally berate him, performed with his back to the audience, and stormed off after fans asked him to play Pumpkins material. But time—or maybe financial needs—heal all wounds. On Thursday evening, at a hometown show at Chicago's ornate Civic Opera House, Corgan found refreshing, innovative ways to perform some of his most beloved fare. He played with original Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, and reunited with guitarist James Iha for only the second time in 15 years, following a surprise reunion last month in Los Angeles for an astounding mid-set suite of songs from the Siamese Dream era.
In recent years the prevailing narrative surrounding the Pumpkins has been one of Corgan viewing his band's creative legacy as more influential or everlasting than reality might prove. If Thursday's show, billed as an electro-acoustic performance, proved anything however, it was that the Pumpkins songs have aged incredibly well and remain ripe for interpretation. Wearing his contemporary concert garb—an ill-fitting grey suit with black t-shirt underneath—the bald frontman spoke at minimum, and instead dedicated himself almost entirely to the service of the songs. Armed with an acoustic guitar for the near entirety of the evening, Corgan transformed several of the band's heavy songs—most notably Siamese gems including "Rocket and "Mayonnaise"—into serene melodic meditations. At the outset of the evening, playing first by his lonesome and then flanked by his long-touring guitarist Jeff Schroeder, Corgan played the part of a tender troubadour, spinning beatific renditions of the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness ballads "Stumbleine" and "Thirty-Three," not to mention an achingly beautiful spin on his unreleased solo track, "The World's Fair."
The singer, whose voice remains a prodding, aching, well-preserved instrument, spread the 130-minute set with selections from the entirety of his career—the Pumpkins' more progressive Machina II tracks like "Saturnine"; his brief band Zwan's "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea"; and even a take on Hole's "Malibu," which Corgan wrote with Courtney Love. It was the Siamese material though that resonated most with the sold-out crowd. "Who better to kick off the Siamese Dream era with me than Mr. James Iha?" Corgan said in one of his only spoken interactions. Shortly thereafter, in one of the most affecting moments of the evening, the pair took "Disarm" to an almost gothic place—with Corgan on organs with Iha adding textured guitar lines.
If Corgan allowed fans at the Civic Opera the opportunity to be teleported back to mid-'90s Chicago, it was only fitting then that fellow city native Liz Phair served as his opening act. Never one to shy away from revealing her innermost thoughts—no mater how much that might have ruffled some feathers at the outset of her career—the singer, who broke out with 1993's provocative Exile in Guyville, remains an open book. Dressed in a green military jacket, knee-high boots and a white skirt, she recalled coming to the Civic Opera as a child with her parents, who were also in attendance. To that end, Phair said it was "kind of incredible" to now be performing at the venue all these years later.
Unlike Corgan, though, Phair never embraced her role as a commercial superstar. Perhaps it's always been part of her charm to seem aggressively nonchalant, but it undoubtedly hindered her ability to connect with an increasingly restless crowd on Thursday, even when performing a string of her biggest hits like "Never Said" or "Polyester Bride." When she did occasionally step out from her ho-hum routine, like when reaching to her higher register on Whip-Smart's standout "Supernova," Phair reminded those in the audience of the far more compelling performer she once was.