To say that I am a big fan of alternative rockers Garbage, who I have been listening to for more than half of my life, would be a massive understatement. I can still vividly remember watching the video for “I Think I’m Paranoid” on MTV for the first time, at the age of ten, in complete awe of front woman Shirley Manson, aggressively singing and stomping around in her strapless polka-dotted dress. The first time I saw them live, in April of 1999 at the Anaheim Honda Center (then called the Arrowhead Pond) when they opened for Alanis Morrisette, was the moment I fell in love with live music. One of my first pieces as a music journalist was a review of their MTV Campus Invasion show at UC Irvine for the former website terriffichick.com. (I had been asked to write for the music section of the teen girl’s site when one of its owner’s, a co-worker of my dad’s, heard that he had an eleven year old daughter who thought Manson was cooler than Britney Spears.)
My admiration for the band has remained strong over time, even though it has been seven years since they released any new material. After 2005’s “Bleed Like Me,” Garbage went on hiatus while the members pursued other projects. (Manson recorded a solo record, which was unfortunately shelved by her record company for being “too noir” and had her first acting gig on the second season of the television series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” . Drummer Butch Vig produced albums from other acts, including The Foo Fighters’ Grammy winning 2011 album “Wasting Light.”) The group finally reunited in the studio about a year ago , and the result is the impending fifth Garbage record, “Not Your Kind of People,” set to be released on May 15th, via the band’s own label, STUNVOLUME. When I found out news of the record, as well as an upcoming tour, I was as ecstatic as my adolescent self had been the first time I scored tickets to a Garbage show.
I was lucky enough to get tickets to one of their sold-out gigs at Los Angeles’ the El Rey, a venue with only a 700 person capacity. When I arrived on April 10th, the second of the band’s El Rey dates, and third night of the tour, a line had already formed from the venue’s entrance to the corner of Dunsmuir Ave. and Wilshire Blvd, even though doors weren’t scheduled to open for two and a half hours. I waited with the crowd of fans dressed in mostly black, with the exception of one man in a plaid kilt, along with my mom (who’s also an avid fan) and brother. By the time everyone had filed inside, the small venue was more packed than any other show I had seen there.
The night opened with “sound designer” and “music technologist” Laura Escude. (In addition to Escude’s opening spot on the bill, she also assisted with tech design, music programming, and vocal effects on this tour.) Escude’s “electrobeat” tracks were often accompanied by a violin, a concept I appreciated more than the actual execution. With no breaks between compositions, each song seemed to be part of one continuous piece. Her focus was primarily on her equipment, until she thanked the audience just before her last song, an unreleased remix of M83’s “Steve McQueen.” Though I did enjoy moments of her performance, I had wished Escude made more of an effort to interact with the crowd.
Just before 9:00, a roadie removed the sheet covering Butch Vig’s plexiglass encased drums (so they don’t drown out Manson’s vocals), and the lights went black. The boys of Garbage made their way to the stage, and kicked into “Supervixen,” the first track off of Garbage’s 1994 self-titled debut album.
Their vocalist emerged onstage, wearing starlet-like wavy red hair, a sheer pink poncho and a giant grin, with her arms out stretched. Manson has always had obvious stage presence, and she was definitely in top form tonight. She exuded confidence as she performed each song, illustrating the lyrics with theatrical gestures and expressions.
Though there wasn’t a huge amount of movement in the crowd, the audience was clearly delighted at Garbage’s return. Fans (myself definitely included) were singing along so loud it was sometimes difficult to hear Manson. The setlist sampled each of the band’s first four records, and even included non-album tracks, like “The World is Not Enough,” (their theme song for the 1999 Bond film of the same name), and their most successful B-side, “#1 Crush.”
The latter song started a bit rough, but they handled it with a professional sense of humor. Manson giggled and shrugged her shoulders through a shaky first verse, and then asked the band to stop because she had “no idea where we are.” As the band was getting ready to restart, Manson exclaimed, “This would fuck with minds of others. but not me. I’m not afraid of failure.” After a much smoother second take she asked, “You want more mistakes?” When the audience answered with cheers, she assured us, “Oh there’s plenty coming,” but I didn’t notice any beyond that point.
The band seemed elated to be playing again for their fans, as Manson was constantly thanking them. At one point she addressed the audience like a group of old friends, “So how’ve you been?” After the crowd answered with overjoyed screams, she continued, “What’s happening? Tell me everything!”
Halfway through their set, the band played two new tracks, “Blood for Poppies,” the first single off the new record, and “Automatic Systematic Habit,” a Siouxsie Sioux-esque number with pounding drums, which some fans already knew the words too. Just before a chillingly beautiful performance of “Milk,” Manson requested a fan be brought to the stage, adding, “We weren’t sweating last night.”
In addition to writing new material, the group has also been tinkering around with some of their classics. Their sarcastic hit “Only Happy When it Rains” began with a slowed down, minimal first verse. Fans provided vocals for most of the chorus (I was so proud to see my brother, who definitely wouldn’t identify as a Garbage fan, among those mouthing along “Pour your misery down on me.”)
The encore for the nearly two-hour show began mere minutes after the band exited at the end of “Push It.” After “Special,” their 1999 homage to The Pretenders, Manson spoke of remembering the “magical atmosphere in the room” when they had written the next song at Wisconsin’s Smart Studios . They then kicked into the haunting “The Trick is To Keep Breathing,” which hadn’t been played since their Version 2.0 tour.
Before their final song, Manson introduced the rest of the band, Vig, touring bassist Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction), and guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erickson. When the crowd howled “Duuuuuuke” upon Erickson’s intro, Manson explained how bummed she had been on the last tour over fans who were booing Duke, until the band informed her that they were just shouting his name. The set closed with the first song Garbage wrote together after reconvening in the studio. As Manson explained, the group got a bottle of wine, laughed a lot, and “Battle in Me” is what “came out of the ether.”
At one point while thanking ticket holders, Manson gratefully stated, “We know how lucky we are.” As a fan, I have to say the feeling is mutual. There’s a reason I haven’t stopped gushing about this band for the past fourteen years. The old songs still hold up after an infinite number of plays, and they’re still putting out quality material. And when it comes to performing live, Garbage still knows how to give fans more than their money’s worth. I’m not the only one to be thrilled to have Garbage back, either. The band’s North American and European spring gigs are already mostly sold out.