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The Smashing Pumpkins, Birmingham Arena. 7th June 2024

I fear this could go horribly wrong. I’ve driven an hour and a half, thankfully dodging traffic to Birmingham, but I’ve not eaten barely anything all day. There’s signs outside Birmingham Arena that say there’s food inside. I’ll pay a premium, I don’t care, but I get in to find the usual arena experience. Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, they’re all the same hell hole, too many people and not enough facilities. Meaning it’s near impossible to get any food or drink and forget about getting to the toilets. I nearly give up and tough it out, but as we get close to kick off, the masses pile out of the concourse, the queues ease and I drop a silly amount of money on some mediocre sustenance. It’s not the best start, but everything is quickly demolished in time for the Smashing Pumpkins opera to begin. Thats what it feels like as the title track off the last album ATUM plays out and the lighting rig springs into action. I’d expected this, Corgan hasn’t been backward in his determination to look forward. So despite this looking like an arena gig, it’s not going to sound quite like one. Any punter expecting wall to wall hits will be disappointed. Fair play though, there’s quite an arsenal to dip into, not only there being decades of records, but most of them are double or triple albums. As this epic set stretches out, I think we get something from every era. I praised Manchester Arena last week for their improved sound, but sadly the same upgrades haven’t made it to Birmingham and ‘The Everlasting Gaze’ sounds pretty sludgy. Corgan’s vocal sounds alright in the mix, but the rest is a thick wall dominated by the low end. The lights are nice and the guitars sound decent, but I’m sensing already some impatience in the crowd. A cover of U2s ‘Zoo Station’ is not going to help. Say what you like about U2 but Actung Baby is a good album. This cover, less so. James Iha tries to get a clap going, but the crowd are having none of it. ‘Today’ settles everyone. With a little more space in it, it sounds much better than anything we’ve heard so far. Phones are out and everyone’s singing and Birmingham sounds bloody good! ‘Through the Eyes of Ruby’ seems to lose the masses again though, which is a real shame as it’s absolutely magnificent. A sprawling epic that glides through movements. One arsehole in ear shot shouts “get on with it” as its weaves into its ambient close. I’d expect that of some of the more obscure tracks tonight, but this comes from one of the most well known albums. There’s no pleasing some people. James tells us “that was the psychedelic portion of our show” and thanks us for coming out. I hear someone say “great here we go”, before they launch into ‘Spellbinding’ with its summery synths. It’s pure pop, like Blossoms injected with a touch of metal. It’s quite funny. I admire their stubborn approach to choosing a set list as wide ranging as they have. The rollercoaster hits a fast bend with ‘Tonight, Tonight’. Couples kiss. Middle aged men hug each other. Such is the power of a sustained drum roll that crashes into a simple catchy chorus. It’s really not an obvious crowd pleaser when you think about it, but Corgan sounds angelic accompanied by thousands of back up singers. It’s time to crank it up again. ‘That Which Animates the Spirit’ will do that. The megawatt riffs chugs away like monolithic blasts of artillery. I can see the die hards down the front are into it, but this crowd is struggling with anything they don’t know well. Seriously though, ATUM is well worth a listen if you’ve not given it a go yet. Corgan demands we sing the chorus to ‘Ava Adore’ and there is some attempt. I like this one, it’s Depeche Mode underbelly ripped through with punk menace, as Corgan, freed from guitar duties stalks the stage. The room falls quiet while he finds an acoustic and bang, those gongs of ‘Disarm’ do just that. It’s a real moment. The definition of grandiose. It’s quite staggering that they’ve not chosen it to close, but as I’ve said, they’re doing things their own way… and the closer is worth waiting for. Another new one ‘Springtimes’ loses everyone again and I have to move as chatter starts up around me. Corgan declares his love for Birmingham (pronounced like we’re in Alabama) “the home of heavy metal” as they dispatch the grunge classic ‘Mayonaise’. It really owes as much to shoegaze with that lazy tone of hope and my heart swells throughout. Before ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ sets it free. What a banger. I thought the floor was concrete, but I swear it bounces. The whole place goes off. ‘Empires’ matches its power, but again the unfamiliarity to the room lets it down. I feel for the band really. There’s some stunning stuff in this set that really should be levelling this place. Granted I get distracted myself by someone’s genius idea to light up their held aloft pint with their phone, turning it into a beacon so their mates can find them. Which they do in time for ‘1979’. It’s a beautiful song and they play it beautifully and faithfully. These slower, chilled songs seem to be hitting the spot. “What do you want to hear Birmingham” asks James. Not ‘Birch Grove’ it seems as the bloke behind me breathes “fucks sake”. I know these tickets weren’t cheap, but they have played 90 minutes already and don’t appear to be in a hurry to leave. Although oddly several people seem to be. ‘Panopticon’ is heavier. Not quite like ‘Jellybelly’ though. It’s a monster on record, but sounds like war has broke out live. Chamberlin is a phenomenal drummer and easily wakes up a slumbering arena as we get to the business end. Before the heavenly ‘Rhinoceros’ sweeps us all into a dream again. A nice one though, it really is stunning. This set is like a Pumpkins album, it’s constantly twisting, full of surprises. They certainly keep you on your toes. I’ve usually an idea of where a band is headed by this point, but I’ll admit, tonight I’ve not a bloody clue. It could be the long day, drive, lack of food, but I’ll also admit I start yawning during the intro of ‘Gossamer’. It’s slow lament teases away, but I need something with a punch. It gets there though with a riff that could shatter foundations, but it’s still not what I’d choose in this slot. It’s a very deep cut, I think I’ve only heard it once or twice myself on YouTube. Maybe the mood in the room is getting to me. Hold on though, at the 2 hour mark they hit the accelerator again with ‘Cherub Rock’ launching into ‘Zero’. It’s a breathtaking finale to an uncompromising set and honestly although they clearly lost some people in places. I’d bet that most people went home happy. Definitely worth the long drive as I set off to find where I parked the car, smiling politely and looking for something healthier than another hot dog.


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