It has been a very long time since Garbage has been on the road. As a dedicated fan, rolling with their evolving style from album to album, and crushed by the apparent dissolution of the band in 2005, it's an exciting thing to get a chance to see them again, more than seven years since I saw them grace the stage of the Agora in Cleveland.
First off, let me say that I'm no fan of the venue. Maybe it's my age, but standing-room-only concert clubs appeal to me about as much as riding public transportation with naked people who don't know what a shower is. I'm not a tall guy at 5'8", and my wife is 5'3". We spent the first four songs about 20 feet off of stage right, then found a really fantastic spot at the back of the bar, with a clear view of the stage. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the Showbox SoDo completely suck. The building seems to absorb all of the midrange, so if you're anywhere not near the speakers, it doesn't sound good at all.
Screaming Females opened, a trio fronted by this tiny little woman who could sing like few rock stars can, and fuck up a guitar with skills few possess (then between songs a tiny, cute little voice would say, "We're Screaming Females from New Jersey"). They reminded me a little bit of early Smashing Pumpkins, which is to say that they were really solid and that Billy Corgan mostly sounds like a small woman. I was into it.
Garbage played for nearly two hours, cranking out 21 songs. That's the advantage of having something like 80 published songs, that they can fill up a whole lot of time with excellent songs. What's interesting is the distribution of the songs, in terms of albums. Most were from the first two albums and the newest one. They only did two from Beautiful Garbage ("Cherry Lips" and "Shut Your Mouth"), and one from Bleed Like Me ("Why Do You Love Me"). Meanwhile, they dropped "The World Is Not Enough," their James Bond theme, which disappointed me as they've been playing it on other dates, but added "Hammering In My Head." It's almost like they're not as into the "middle" albums as much, though I suppose if I were picking favorites, I'd probably make similar choices.
It's always neat to hear new songs performed live for the first time. "Automatic System Habit" really gets the crowd jumping, while "Blood For Poppies" and "I Hate Love" also represent well live. "Man On A Wire" wasn't as good. However, the crown jewel live, for me, was "Control," which has such a big and epic sound to it.
Along with the 2005 show I saw in Cleveland, I can't tell you how impressed I am with Shirley Manson as a singer. When I first saw them on November 17, 1995, she appeared uncomfortable on stage and pitchy (to use the singing competition parlance). These days she commands attention, and I think if she wanted to, she could kick your ass. Most impressively, she can yell at you on a song like "Shut Your Mouth," and completely seduce you with a song like "Milk." She did play a Terminator on TV, after all.
The band in general has always played in a very clean and polished way, but this time around it just feels better. Perhaps the statements in their recent interviews give a clue as to why this might be. Free of a shitty record company, they're really able to do their own thing. They talk about having recorded songs in single takes and getting back to the music. Even their staging is stripped down to a video projector and a house light plot, a far cry from the more dynamic (and frankly more interesting) light shows they used to tour with.
What keeps me coming back to see them is their ability to take a song that's a decade and a half old and make it new again. The arrangements are different every time they hit the road. I don't think "#1 Crush" has ever been consistent from one tour to the next. "Only Happy When It Rains" was particularly awesome this time, with the first verse being slower and stripped down. And of course, when they wrap up with "Vow," you never know just how much noise it will involve.
Garbage has a lot of songs that deal with not fitting in, and in the sense that the record industry and radio never quite knew what to do with them, the theme works even if the lyrics are about more personal issues. Still, it's striking to me that this is a band that sells millions of records and sells out every show. I hope they continue to do so. They're really fun to see live, even in a shitty venue.