For someone who’s long led the Smashing Pumpkins as an exercise in deliberately trying the patience of his audience, Billy Corgan sure seemed to conceive Tuesday’s TD Garden concert as fan service to an almost ridiculous degree. With James Iha on guitar for the first time since Bill Clinton was president and on-again-off-again drummer Jimmy Chamberlin currently on again, 75 percent of the classic lineup was present and accounted for. (Only bassist D’arcy Wretzky remained MIA.) The overly generous running time (more than three hours) and the setlist’s exclusive focus on the Iha-Chamberlin era let the band run through nearly every song an audience might want to hear.
And yet, despite almost all of the pieces being in place to revisit the time when they were the biggest band in the world, something still seemed off. For all of their anthemic pomp, Smashing Pumpkins have always been a band that thrives more in the studio than on the stage, and even with the wattage of an arena-size sound system behind it, the shift from liquid quiet to megadistortion in “Soma” was less visceral than on the record. “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” offered grand bombast without the command necessary for it to lift and expand.
A huge part of the problem appeared to be the self-regard that has long been both Corgan’s greatest asset and biggest liability. The frontman never bothered to connect with the audience; it was as if he regarded himself so that nobody else had to. But that disconnect also extended to the songs — the sinuousness of “Rhinoceros” and “Drown” were muted by Corgan’s ungraceful lumbering, and it seemed telling that he was more emotive and animated on a weightless cover of “Space Oddity” than he was with his own material — and the band itself.
That was a bigger problem, given that he had zero rapport with his prodigal bandmates. (To be fair, he also had zero rapport with the other musicians onstage.) During Iha’s mellow-gold Laurel Canyon tribute “Blew Away,” Corgan was nowhere to be found, and he next appeared on a platform playing piano well above the band on “For Martha,” whose grandeur remained stubbornly earthbound.
But as detached as Corgan could be, Smashing Pumpkins still managed to soar despite themselves, just not as often as they should have. From the cosmic slow motion of “To Sheila” and the graceful, creamy churn of “Mayonaise” to the spirited beaming of “Hummer” and the buzzy, almost lopsided “Muzzle,” it seemed that sometimes Smashing Pumpkins songs are strong enough to overcome being played by Smashing Pumpkins.
With chiming, pealing guitar and an anthemic swell, openers Metric played with a tense confidence that let the groaning sneer and light momentum of songs like “Dark Saturday” exist simultaneously.
At TD Garden, TuesdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.