All words: Andy Johnson — All photos: Katherine Gaines
I might as well answer the question you want to know: Shirley Manson is still hot. At the sold-out 9:30 Club Wednesday evening, she remarked “We’ve played this club so many times,” explaining that during their absence from touring, “amazing things happened.” I don’t know how much of this was generic stage patter, but considering she reeled off two dozen names of friends and family in the audience, her salutation of “You’re one of us and we’re one of you” felt sincere. Yes, the forty-five-year-old Manson is still attractive, but like her audience, she’s starting to show her age.
To be quite honest I never expected Garbage to reunite, except for maybe a one-off fundraiser or a Coachella payday. The band almost split in 2005, squiring out another album and tour before announcing they were on a dreaded “indefinite hiatus.” Each member was frustrated and had other interests. Guitarist/keyboardists Duke Erickson and Steve Marker raised families and pursued artistic and musical ambitions. Manson began work on a solo album and became one of a handful of people in the universe to claim they are an avatar for a Terminator.
Drummer Butch Vig, who I am contractually obligated by music critic regulations to note he produced Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ twin alt-rock masterpieces Gish and Siamese Dream, spent his time producing for Foo Fighters, Muse and Green Day. When he wasn’t depositing checks from today’s radio friendly unit shifters, Vig struck up a partnership with Laura Jane Grace née Tom Gabel, producing two Against Me! Albums as well as her debut solo EP.
But all things pass. The Terminator show was a dud (Ask around, no one watched that shit). Manson’s solo album was quietly aborted. Erickson and Marker wanted to start writing music again. Butch Vig can accept only so much American Idiot money before feeling guilty. Freed from their record label’s restrictions, Garbage reconvened and labored on a new album for nearly two years. ‘90s acts are big business now. Foo Fighters remain one of the most popular bands in America. Red Hot Chili Peppers recently sold out the Verizon Center and will appear at Bonnaroo. Pearl Jam announced they will co-headline Jay-Z’s new Made in America festival. Metallica one-upped their contemporaries by starting their own festival. Creed still exists.
Garbage, touring on their behalf on their surprisingly solid new album Not Your Kind Of People, returned to the DC area for the first time in seven years Wednesday night. If you want me to say this was something other than a popular‘90s act touring on their accolades, I would be lying if I disagree. But I don’t see how this is a negative thing. Hits were played. Faces were rocked. Nostalgia was mined.
They put on an excellent two-hour show, seamlessly incorporating the best of their new material while stacking the set with hit song after hit song. They opened with new single “Automatic System Habit”, a catchy alt-rock tune that’s so quintessentially Garbage, those who aren’t up to date with the new songs probably thought it was a loose track off an early release. One could criticize Garbage for writing a song that’s too derivative of their early hits. Fuck that noise. I don’t want Garbage dabbling in IDM or dubstep. I want guitars, I want synths, I want “Push It” and I want Manson’s pouty vocals.
Prior to playing a cut off their new album, Manson said, “We want you to love these new songs as much as we do and the only way to do that is by forcing you to listen to them.” Well, okay. The aforementioned “Automatic System Habit” is a certified banger even if it lifts its chorus from OK Go. “Blood For Poppies” is a crunchy juggernaut with an anti-war message. “Big Bright World” is a retread of Version 2.0’s “When I Grow Up.” I have no problem with a band copying itself, but this meant my favorite Garbage song was bumped from this tour’s set list.
After proclaiming their admiration for the District, they played “Control” live for the first time in human history, featuring a particularly deep solo from touring bassist Eric Avery, formerly of 90’s dinosaur Jane’s Addiction. Considering the four new songs they played are the four best songs on the album (and coincidentally happen to be its first four tracks), they deserve kudos for cutting filler and only performing their strongest songs, both new and old.
Most of their classic material stood up over the past 15+ years. “Queer” prompted a sultry sing-a-long. The opening thwump of “Stupid Girl” registered some of the loudest applause of the evening. “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” remains as saccharine as ever, sending several gay men near me into epileptic fits of happiness. “Milk” remains one of the best trip-hop songs written by non-Bristolians. Despite my belief that The World Is Not Enough is an act of cinematic terrorism, I was impressed by a near-perfect rendition of its theme, arguably one of the best James Bond themes ever. (Let me also gently chastise Weird Al for not parodying the “Thong Song” with “Bond Song” when he had the chance.)
But not every hit has aged as gracefully as Manson has. The three songs off Bleed Like Me—“Bad Boyfriend”, “Metal Heart” and “Why Do You Love Me”—sounded dumb and clumsy. No wonder Green Day tapped Vig after the band went on a break. A pretty woman rap-singing may have worked for Blondie (and, uh, Ke$ha I guess), but it just doesn’t fit Manson’s style on “Shut Your Mouth.”
I can appreciate a band messing up every once in a while in a giggly Jimmy Fallon sort-of-way, but three screw-ups on “Temptation Never Waits” (keyboard malfunction), “#1 Crush” (forgotten lyrics) and “Supervixen” (flubbed guitar pedal, causing the band to re-start) crossed the line from whimsical to unprofessional. Manson said about her absentmindedness, “We can’t seem to get through a set without fucking up!” The crowd ate up the self-deprecation, but it’s telling that even Scott Stapp can make it through a performance without a sloppy mistake.
Garbage wisely saved their anthemic songs for the end. The toe-curling intro of “I Think I’m Paranoid” shook the club, as Manson and her adoring crowd chanted, “Bend me, break me, anyway you need me all I want is you.” Considering the stormy weather outside, “Only Happy When It Rains” was taken literally. The throbbing pulse of “Push It” remains as kinetic and twitchy as it ever was.
Prior to introducing each song in the encore, Manson explained what year it was written in. “Supervixen”, a Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins clone dressed up with Manson’s vocals, took the audience all the way back to 1995. The gentlemen in front of me, clearly pumped to hear one of his favorite songs, said, “Holy shit, 1995! I was a senior in high school.” The introduction to “Special”, one of Garbage’s touching break-up songs (All the band seems to write are break up songs), caused this man to comment that in 1997 he was entering his first year at community college, optimistic about what life lay before him.
The band closed the encore with “Vow”, the first Garbage song to hit the radio. According to Manson, in 1995 the song was first “played in Australia, picked up in Seattle, and then played in DC, then it exploded.” The crowd was lifted by the propulsive energy and local pandering. The man leaned over to his friend and said, “I remember listening to this song in high school. That must have been… eighteen years ago?” He sadly looked into his nearly-empty bottle, reflecting about his growing figure.
But then the chorus struck. Age didn’t matter. Time became elastic. This average American thirty-something guzzled the rest of his beer and went ballistic. Tomorrow he may be another office drone but tonight, he’s seventeen again.