Billy Corgan Reveals a Softer Side of Smashing Pumpkins at UH

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Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair
Cullen Performance Hall
April 20, 2016

Planting a foot in the present while stretching the other 20-plus years back to the past has odd consequences. When done properly, such a move might earn admiration from the most skilled yoga practitioners. But, a slip here or there, and you’re suddenly in a painful and embarrassing split, wondering how to get back on your feet.

That’s the position the audience and performers were in at last night’s Smashing Pumpkins/Liz Phair show at UH's Cullen Performance Hall. For instance, the evening's first dozen and a half songs were done in the style reminiscent of MTV’s Unplugged shows — the good ones, from back in the decade when these alt-rock acts debuted.

But there were some unsteady moments that proved you can’t just wish 1993 into the present day, even if the day happens to be 4/20.  For instance, punctuality seems to be important to yesteryear’s alt-rock heroes today. Those of us still living on Exile In Guyville time wound up missing most of Phair’s set. The rock heroine who gave us “Fuck and Run” and that line about doing it backwards, “that way we can fuck and watch TV,” was done with her set at 8:12 p.m., barely a commercial break past network TV’s family hour. It's weird to live in a time when Liz Phair completes a full set of songs — from a 25-year career, to boot — during the same daylight hours some people are finishing dinner at Luby’s.

It’s been a very long time since Phair has been to Houston, and many of us have waited years to see her live. She must have been eager to play for us, since show time was listed as 7:30 and she was already into “Mesmerizing” when we arrived at 7:45, with only “Supernova,” “Why Can’t I” and “Divorce Song” to follow. Then, she was waving good-bye. Just like that, we went from #wcw to wtf.

Nevertheless, Phair was in good form, switching easily from acoustic to electric guitar, standing six-feet- one instead of five-feet-two, center stage with no backing band. These many years since Exile — one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Best Albums of All Time Ever — she looked and sounded amazing. To paraphrase Stevie Wonder, her skirt was short, but Lord, her legs, her voice and her guitar playing were sturdy.

Maybe these touring visitors were worried it might start raining again and they’d be stuck here because Billy Corgan was onstage and strumming away at “Cardinal Rule” at 8:27. Like clockwork! He too was a sight, dark-suited and moving like a long shadow against an auburn-colored backdrop that zipped us straight past summer and into fall. Song two was “Stumbleine,” which drew the first surge of audible appreciation from the crowd. The too-loud “yeahs!” and “woos!” were amplified by the fact that Corgan played the first few songs with no accompaniment. And song three was “Tonight, Tonight,” so you can imagine the hooting and yammering that emanated from beyond Corgan’s line of sight. He played on without a word to the crowd. There was no genial banter, but also no reprimand for overzealous enthusiasm.

And that’s the way it went for seven songs, Corgan playing songs solo or with support from guitarist Jeff Schroeder, with little to no acknowledgment of the ticket-paying public just feet away. There wasn’t any real dialogue until a backdrop change led Corgan into Act Two, the “Siamese Suite,” a run of songs from an era he defined as “1992 to 1994. So, for the guy yelling ‘1979,’ we won’t be doing that in this part of the show. Then, we’ll follow that up with some Lynyrd Skynyrd classics.”

This is the part where I’m supposed to tangent off to why Corgan is a polarizing figure for some. If you’re a true fan of Smashing Pumpkins, you probably don’t care about that at all. And, if you’re just a casual fan, you maybe just want to know how the show went musically rather than reading some opinion-laden essay on whether artists owe their paying audience a “How you doin’-insert city here” or whether they should be used to ill-behaved audiences after three decades of performing.

Sticking to what was heard and seen music-wise last night, I’d say I personally have a much deeper appreciation for Corgan’s guitar playing. Watching him play so much of the set without a band allowed me to focus on what he does with that instrument, instead of narrowing in on his very recognizable and strong vocals. Having the band join in at song nine — "Soma," from Siamese Dream — provided an interesting contrast and a taste of 1990s Pumpkins for those of us catching them live for the first time. That Corgan was able to pay homage to David Bowie with “Space Oddity” without a mass singalong or Belieber-like behavior showed his fans respect him and those who have influenced him. The crowd wasn’t induced to join in on the singing until “Today,” and really, it’s hard not to want to sing that one. Other highlights included Phair returning to the stage to join in on “Thirty-Three” and Corgan going solo for a wicked rendition of “Disarm,” deep in the corner of the blue-lit stage, looking like the phantom at the organ.

Yes, the years do burn; but, in the end, there was way more solid footing from the night’s entertainers and audience than missteps. We somehow pulled it together and straddled past and present with a modicum of grace. At least, that’s how I left the show, right after “1979,” just in case any Skynyrd covers were next on the set list.

Personal Bias: Elizabeth Clark Phair. I’m okay with the four songs I caught live because that was four more than I’d heard from her live before last night. Please come back soon with a full band to kick all our asses, Liz.

The Crowd: Zero tees. Tats. Vans. Gray beards.

Random Notebook Dump: Seeing how it was the stoners’ equivalent of Christmas or Valentine’s Day or whatever, it seems like some of you could have been a bit mellower than your caterwauling suggested. From what I’ve heard, Corgan let you off pretty easily.

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