All photos by Autumn Andel.
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"I would like to thank Billy for inviting me along on this tour," said Liz Phair during a break in her opening solo set. "It gives us a real chance to explore different sides of these songs we have played so often."
Tuesday night's show at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was the first date of Smashing Pumpkins' current "In Plainsong" tour, which has been billed as an "acoustic electro" experience. But until the moment of Phair's gentle disclaimer, the audience didn't seem to be prepared for what was happening. Phair, who's known for her grunge-tinged bombast, gingerly strummed through a short collection of her most beloved tunes and seemed visibly uncomfortable with the understated reaction to her performance. This initial apprehension, however, provided a new tenderness to her compositions, and it was a delight to hear that sultry growl isolated to its rawest potential.
Smashing Pumpkins' portion of the evening was organized into a series of mini-sets, with each chapter featuring a different formation of his five-piece band playing either new material or minimalist versions of Pumpkins standards. Solo acoustic numbers, jazzy band workouts, and even moody electronica were all part of the repertoire, and Billy Corgan seemed bent on keeping his audience guessing around every turn. That iconic, yearning wail was ever-present, though, and when paired with only a simple synth on the devastating "Disarm," the shocking weight of the vocal melody was even more emotional than the original recording.
There was a palpable restlessness from the crowd when the lesser-known material started to meander, but they were eventually rewarded with groovy versions of "Today" and "1979," along with a sweet version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The introduction of original drummer Jimmy Chamberlain earned a standing ovation and seemed to be only time when there was unanimous satisfaction from the house.
The last time I saw Smashing Pumpkins I was left in awe of Billy Corgan's guitar playing, but this tour is definitely about experimenting with different shades of his genius. Grumbles of "Dude, they didn't play 'Butterfly'!" and "I wore my Zero shirt for nothing?!" were heard from the exiting hordes—but what they saw shouldn't be considered a true Smashing Pumpkins concert, but rather new chapters in the saga of Billy Corgan's artistic journey. Our most beloved performers tend to offer these types of challenges when their careers grow lengthy (Dylan, Van Morrison, the aforementioned Bowie), and if Corgan's oeuvre continues to move further towards veneration status, true fans of his work should expect more of these curious explorations going forward. The Pumpkins' hits will sound eternal no matter what the instrumentation, and that is why we should continue to pay attention.