At Ravinia, Billy Corgan Challenges Himself, Audience

The rock star inside Billy Corgan refuses to be tamed, even at a solo show advertised as acoustic. Saturday at Ravinia, the Smashing Pumpkins leader began his first career-spanning concert unaccompanied before being joined by the group's guitarist, Jeff Schroeder, for the remainder of the 150-minute set. But even before a bizarre finale — that witnessed Corgan invite dozens of personalities from his pro-wrestling league onstage — the duo ballooned into a sextet and succumbed to excess.

Not one to take the easy route, Corgan challenged himself and the audience. Performing a stone's throw from both his Highland Park home and Madame ZuZu's tea shop, the 47-year-old delved deep into his vast catalog, balancing familiar fare with material only ardent followers might recognize. The bold decision owed to Corgan's desire to move beyond his band's heyday—particularly, songs made between 1993 and 1998—and expose music he created since the quartet's original lineup broke up at the turn of the century.

Corgan's determination to prove his contemporary worth arrived in the form of unreleased tunes ("Lonely Is the Name"), rarities ("The Rose March"), new epics ("Burnt Orange Black") and selections from his unissued "ChicagoSongs/ChicagoKid" project, including the lengthy "The World's Fair" during which the vocalist/guitarist ordered up a patience-testing stream of electronic blips and bleeps. Since none were mentioned by name, the obscure songs retained a mystique yet seemed devoid of relatable context. By contrast, the frontman explained the personal tension surrounding the grand "Methusela," which received its live debut with assistance from backing tracks.

Piped-in samples also boosted "Thirty-Three" and "1979," part of a suite of stripped-down "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" compositions that displayed Corgan's growth as a singer. Replacing volume with nuance and screaming with suggestiveness, he put the lyrics on equal footing with beautiful melodies. Focusing on such details, he drew out extra poignancy and vulnerability, particularly on the fragile note-interlaced twirl of "Galapogos" and piano-based confession "To Forgive."

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