SAN FRANCISCO -- The Smashing Pumpkins kicked off their 16-date U.S. charity tour Tuesday night with a two-hour performance that rocked harder than their moody electronic new album, Adore.
Band leader Billy Corgan lives to confound. But the band's fans seem to have a sixth sense about what blind curve Corgan will take them around next.
"My secret hope is that they'll play the Adore stuff and maybe then plug in and rock a bit," said Gracia Brown, 19, before the Pumpkins Tuesday night show at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the first on their 16-date charity tour of the U.S.
Her friend, 27-year-old Sean McCall -- looking very Corgan in black eyeliner, silver pants, a long, black jacket and his head shaved -- added, "They'll rock out. They'll definitely rock out."
The Chicago supergroup -- Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky -- augmented by three percussionists and a keyboard player, would not only radically re-fashion the songs on their new album, they'd deconstruct the biggest hits from their last one, the mega-platinum Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in ways no one except Corgan could have predicted.
The Pumpkins, looked relaxed and loose in all black (D'Arcy sported black glittering horns) as they took the unadorned stage.
Opening with the first track from Adore, the sedate "Twilight Fades," the band quickly established the M.O. for the night, launching off into a rabid rock jam just a few minutes in, a pattern repeated on "Behold! The Night Mare," during which guitarist James Iha dug his heels in for a screaming guitar solo, the likes of which is nowhere to be found on Adore.
Unlike their previous tour, this more intimate spate of gigs in smaller venues features none of the outrageous stage lighting of the past. This time, the band is simply illuminated by a few spare spotlights and some moodier red lighting at strategic points, the only special effects being the 20-odd crash cymbals and three gongs in the beefy rhythm section.
Although the mix was decidedly muddy during the first few songs, the addition of touring drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp) had clearly goosed the band's sound, adding a heft and bombast to new tracks such as "Pug," which opened with a booming, syncopated tribal drum jam. The spooky, nearly gothic rendering of the song was further abstracted by Iha's squealing wall of feedback solos.
All gross revenues from ticket sales from the 16 shows will be donated by the band to local charities -- earlier in the day, while visiting the Hawthorne Elementary School in Oakland for a press conference to talk about the charity tour, Corgan predicted that, when all is said and done, the group will contribute more than $2 million.
The Hawthorne school, along with the East Bay Agency For Children, were the beneficiaries of a $170,000 check Corgan presented before the encore. Following the afternoon press conference, D'Arcy, dressed in a slightly more modest sheer black top than she'd sport during the concert, said the charity shows would have a "different vibe" than the band's usual arena efforts. "These shows are really special," she said while signing autographs for Hawthorne students. "I think people are really positive about them."
The concert continued with a nearly 10-minute version of "Tear," which opened with a dramatic piano solo and included a section during which Corgan, dressed in a long, black coat waved his arms to the side like a crazed, testifying preacher.
The album's single, "Ava Adore," a bouncy, electronic jam, got a retrofit with a cowbell beat and triple-rhythm drumming that doubled the song's tempo and included yet another wall of noise guitar jam during which always subdued guitarist James Iha flexed his muscle as Corgan played rhythm guitar.
Corgan apologized for not knowing all the words to the new tune "Annie-Dog," peeking at the lyric book occasionally with a wide grin on his face as the band played the song very nearly as it appears on the album.
The 16-song set came to a close with a surprising, unplugged, jazzy acoustic version of "Tonight, Tonight" and a cheesy, very '70s arena rock two-minute triple drum solo that segued into a chaotic, nearly industrial eight-minute version of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" that devolved into a cacophony of feedback and dizzying guitar solos.
After having run though nearly all of the new album, the group came back to present the check to the East Bay Agency for Children, and to receive a proclamation from a representative of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's office designating June 30 "Smashing Pumpkins day."
"That means you have to pay us all your taxes now and I have keys to all your homes," Corgan joked as he accepted the plaque. After the group playfully argued about whether it was okay to dance in 1998, they pulled out the final surprise of the evening, a double-time, punky version of their hit "1979."
If they meant to surprise, it clearly worked on a few fans. "I thought it was awesome, great," said 15-year-old Kathryn Hicks of Tiburon, California. "But I didn't think they'd play all of Adore. I like the old stuff better, and I like the old versions better too."
Sporting a "ZERO" necklace, Steve Boswell, 19, said he thought the band rocked harder the other two times he'd seen them. "It was good, it just wasn't ... I didn't necessarily want to hear the whole new album," said Boswell, whose aqua blue hair clashed slightly with his black nail polish. "I guess it's cool, it was a benefit show for kids and whatever."