We’re sitting in Tasty Burger, trying to convince Mike that he knows who Garbage is.
“I know that song, but I don’t think it’s Garbage. A guy sings it.”
“Yeah. You might be thinking of the Neil Young song. Or Cold.”
“Yeah. No. What about ‘Only Happy When It Rains?’”
“I know ‘thunder only happens when it’s raining.’”
“Yeah, I don’t think they’re going to play Fleetwood Mac.”
We decided to leave Mike to his ignorance of 90s alternative rock.
As we entered the House of Blues, one thing became obvious. The House of Blues in Boston is a terrible venue. We admittedly got our tickets a little late, so we were on the mezzanine level. This is the second of three levels and is general admission, standing room only. The mezzanine forms a horseshoe around the room, with the open end at the stage. And If you aren’t at the railing (inside edge of the horseshoe), you probably can’t see the stage. I’m only 5’10”, but I was the tallest member of our troop. I had trouble looking over people’s shoulders, never mind the girls I was with. The House of Blues does have large monitors showing the band, but if you paid $40 to watch a concert on a big screen TV, get out of my way. Eventually, we split up a bit and managed to find some spaces at the back of the room. I wedged between people well enough to see the stage, but there was a horizontal beam supporting the third floor right in front of us. There was a video projected behind the band, but I can assure you I never saw it.
ANYWAY, you didn’t come here to hear me bitch about the House of Blues. What you came to hear is that Garbage was incredible. Like … so good that they reminded me how good live music can be. I go to a lot of shows, but this one stood out. The band opened with “Automatic Systematic Habit,” the first track on their newest album Not Your Kind of People. (First song off the new album has always been the bast way to open a set.) I’ve listened to the new album once or twice without much excitement, but hearing the song live was a wake up call. Or at least a “You didn’t forget about us, did you?”
One thing that set this show apart was how active Shirley Manson is on stage. She’s a rock star, something that we’ve sadly lost since the 90’s. (Seriously. Name a musician that has emerged since 2000 that you can honestly call a rockstar. Chris Martin? Jack fucking White?) Her physical performance is part dance, part victory march. And for close to two hours, she never stopped. It made me realize that in a live setting, I much prefer singers who aren’t also playing instruments. She’s surely more interesting to watch than Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls or Tim Kasher were when I saw each of them recently.
But the guys in the band are no wallflowers. Duke Erikson and Steve Marker couldn’t stand still either. They never took off their guitars, but that didn’t stop them from going over to their keyboards when need be (“don’t worry baaaaybaaay”). Also, Butch Vig is a boss drummer. This guy has produced albums with bands that included Jimmy Chamberlain and Dave Grohl, so that’s no surprise. Finishing the rhythm section was Eric Avery, soon to be touring with Nine Inch Nails. As a touring bass player, I can say he was perfectly adequate. (Sorry, Eric.)
The setlist alternated between tracks from NYKoP and their older albums. A wise move, as no one had a chance to say “I think I’m gonna run to the bathroom.” The performances of those new songs made me excited to go back and listen to the album. Perhaps I just needed it to hit me as a wall of sound with no distractions for it to connect with me. No one but the most hardcore, b-side-philiac (or Bleed Like Me fan) could have been disappointed with the setlist. It was heavy on tracks from Version 2.0, but that’s my second favorite record of all time, so no complaints here. The set included everything you’d expect: hits like “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Push It,” fan favorites like “Cherry Lips” and “Hammering in my Head.” Possibly the biggest surprise of the night was “Cup of Coffee,” a sad number from the underappreciated Beautiful Garbage.
Late in the set, Shirley invited a special guest on stage. It was Steve’s daughter, Ruby. It was her 13th birthday. As the crowd sang to her, I wondered why her name sounded familiar. Then it clicked. On some old version of Garbage’s website, I remember reading that Steve and his wife had had a daughter, named Ruby. That was 13 years ago. If singing along to songs from an album that I bought when I was in eighth grade didn’t make me feel old, that did.
As the band took an encore break, the guy next to me wondered aloud the songs the band would come back out to play. “Stupid Girl.” “Special.” Maybe something else. That something else was “You Look So Fine,” the closer of Version 2.0. I had one dream request and this was it. Sometimes at concerts I do this thing where I close my eyes and just listen. I shut out the light show. I ignore the girl that keeps elbowing me. I just listen. It’s the closest thing I know to religion.
As the band played the coda to the song, Shirley starting singing some familiar lyrics. “Now here you go again/You say you want your freedom/Well, who am I to keep you down?” It dawned on me. That’s what makes a great show. Everything you had expected and an extra something you never could have.