If Billy Corgan's world still is a vampire, he seems none too worse for the wear.
At 45, the Smashing Pumpkin's iconic baldheaded balladeer of hard-rocking melancholia, can still deliver a full serving of the signature piss and vinegar blend that launched his band to international stardom two decades ago.
The Smashing Pumpkins, who at this point are really just Corgan and a somewhat revolving cast of bandmates, played a solid performance Friday night at San Francisco's Bill Graham Auditorium. It was a two-and-a-half hour medley of artful distortion, cranked-up amps, and nostalgia-laden angst, performed before a remarkably subdued audience; the same crowd who 20 years ago would have eagerly been thrashing in a mosh pit, but who stood relatively motionless, the occasional head nod and hand wave a subtle remembrance of the lost wilder days of youth, when there was less cash for drinks but greater capacity to enjoy them.
The evening began with an efficient run-through of the new album, Oceania. The band's first release since touring again five years ago -- and the first to feature Corgan's new accompanists -- it includes a handful of notable tracks, and succeeds in retaining much of the original character and nuanced intensity of the Pumpkins' of yore. Unsurprisingly, though, it's lacking in the same level of gravitas that propelled the group to its generation-defining status in the '90s. Many of the compositions work nicely as background pieces, but struggle to emerge as stand-alones.
Among the exceptions are "Pinwheels" and "Pale Horse," two beautifully delivered compositions emphasizing the sustained strength of Corgan's voice. Among the most distinct, and deliberated-over, in the rock and roll business, Corgan's voice has the unique ability to convey loosely contained packages of raw emotion.
Corgan appeared comfortable on stage, in synch with his skilled new three-piece band, who deftly backed him. Then about midway through the show, Corgan took a much-needed breath, using the opportunity to step out from behind the veil of the gravely serious, storied performer he's built his reputation around, and showed an unexpectedly lighter, more humble, conversational side -- winsome even.
He expressed a genuine sense of gratitude to the audience for letting him play the new album, for waiting patiently and politely to hear the songs he knew they'd really come to hear. And in so doing, Corgan, whose career has been defined as much by its success as its cantankerous, acerbic nature, took a moment to reveal a refreshing level of self-deprecation, an acknowledgement of getting older and an acceptance of that inevitability.
"The world's moving too fast, man," he noted cheerfully "Since none of us smoke the weed, we just got to meditate and do yoga, and drink a lot of Red Bull."
Later he added: "I'm like Mitt Romney. I just keep changing position to suit my goals at that moment."
At the end of the impromptu monologue, Corgan admitted: "I know this is going nowhere. But I'm old and I need to breathe. It's the honest truth."
And then came the good stuff.
The band did near-perfect renditions of its canon, particularly key anthems from the groundbreaking albums Melon Collie and Siamese Dream, including "Tonight, Tonight," and the evening's undisputed highlight, "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," (the vampire reference, for those who didn't catch it) a whirlwind of refreshingly unsubtle youthful rage, filled with the timelessness of high school angst. I mean, when someone howls, "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," how else can you respond but smile knowingly and remember the day you first heard that line, listening to your friend's walkman while cutting 10th grade algebra class?
Perhaps most impressive was Corgan's vocal integrity. This is a man who's spent the majority of his life screaming into microphones, yet his voice came across bewilderingly intact, nearly identical to the shrill vivacity of his early days. It was strong, confident, and full of his definingly-intense targeted emotional outbursts.
In performing his early hits with their deserved darkness and volume, Corgan made clear that these songs are still as relevant and resonant as the day he wrote them years ago. The stuff of classics. And while the performer himself may have matured and merged slightly -- dare it be said -- from despondency, Corgan can still turn the angst like he used to.