It’s been 25 years since I first saw Smashing Pumpkins headline Lollapalooza 1994. In the years between, I’ve seen different lineups of Billy Corgan’s band play heavy, less-focused psychedelic sets and refreshingly re-imagine his catalog on the “In Plainsong Tour” in 2016 — both at Ovens Auditorium.
That first Pumpkins’ show was magical in many ways — the original lineup, as it rose from the alt-rock underground to the mainstream, with “Siamese Dream” capping off a bill that included the Beastie Boys’ circa “Ill Communication.” I saw it the summer before college, and circumstances helped make that experience special.
But there was magic at Tuesday night’s concert at PNC Music Pavilion, too, emanating from the stage via an incredible light show, visuals, and spot-on sound.
It was a night of nostalgia beginning with a set by horror-punk veterans AFI, whose first release came out in 1995, when the members were barely out of their teens. All four have aged well. Guitarist Jade Puget — the oldest, at 45 — still looks like a lanky kid. Bassist Hunter Burgan still moves like one, jumping and spinning. Singer Davey Havok’s voice has only improved over time, and he’s lost none of the swagger that helped the band reach platinum-selling status in the early ’00s. AFI didn’t dig too deep into its back catalog, but the hits “Girl’s Not Grey” and “Miss Murder” made the cut.
Oasis’ guitarist Noel Gallagher & the High Flying Birds — of which there were many — divided their 12-song set between his newer solo work and a handful of Oasis’s favorites. “The first half of the show was for me. The next half is for you,” Gallagher said in his thick Manchester brogue, before strumming the first chords of “Wonderwall.”
The crowd lit up, singing along to the massive ’90s hit, which was followed by “Little By Little,” “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” As with the Pumpkins’ stage production, Gallagher spared no expense when it came to his band. The live Birds consist of longtime Gallagher cohort and Oasis member Gem Archer on guitar; sometime touring Oasis keyboardist Mike Rowe and drummer Chris Sharrock; a horn trio; two female multi-instrumentalists/backing vocalists; and featured vocalist YSÉE (aka Audrey Gbaguidi).
It was obvious, aside from a few crowd-pleasers, that Gallagher isn’t interested in simply rehashing past glories or knocking out singles. The Birds’ 2015 garage-rock rager “Lock All the Doors” didn’t make the set, for instance, given the more classic soul-rock vibe of the rest of his set. Instead, he relied on tracks from 2017’s “Who Built the Moon” LP and the title songs from June’s “Black Star Dancing” EP and September’s upcoming “This Is the Place” EP.
The appearance of three colorfully festive inflatables strung from the rafters above the stage during changeover was the first indication that the Pumpkins’ headlining set would have a fun visual component. The three creatures, which provided both a backdrop and a colorful canvas of geometric patterns for lights to swirl and bounce off of, seemed to combine carnival hues with the primitive design of ’60s sci-fi (think “Forbidden Planet’s” Robby the Robot and his “Lost in Space” counterpart) and children’s toys like classic stacking rings (Corgan does have young children).
The mostly reunited original Pumpkins — Corgan (still looking like an elder from “The Matrix”), guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, along with third guitarist Jeff Schroeder, touring bassist Jack Bates, and keyboardist Katie Cole — launched their set with the massive 1993 hit “Today.” The heavier “Zero” kicked the mood into high gear before “Solara” and “Knights of Malta” from 2018’s underrated “Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1” drove home the psychedelic and hard-rock leanings, complete with a Chamberlain drum solo early in the set. The epic “Disarm” was stunning, in part because it kind of snuck up on the crowd; it was sandwiched between the 2008 “Guitar Hero”-related single “G.L.O.W.” and its B-side, “Superchrist.”
Of course, older hits like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and later “Tonight, Tonight” offered some of the night’s biggest pops (to borrow a wrestling term, since Corgan now owns the National Wrestling Alliance, which once had a big foothold in Charlotte).
Toward the end of the show, Corgan noted that the Pumpkins’ journey began 31 years ago and time had been kind to Iha in particular, who with messy black hair and a sequined black jacket looked like it could be 1999 or 2019.
Yet Iha’s cool was tempered by his words. The first time the guitarist called Charlotte “Charlottesville,” I thought he might be kidding. The second time, it was apparent he was not. Yet Corgan knew exactly where he was (thankfully, given that he was just here this spring to resurrect the NWA’s Crockett Cup), shouting, “That’s right Charlotte!” during “1979.”
As the show neared its close, the gradually building notes of “Cherub Rock” set off a perfect finale of light, color and big electric guitars, much the way the song did opening “Siamese Dream” 26 years ago. “The Aeroplane Flies High” closed the set without an encore, but the punctuation of “Cherub Rock” had already given the night its epic close.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 acoustic leaning “In Plainsong” set, Corgan and company proved that they’re still just as capable at putting on an incredible arena rock show.