review by Michael McCarthy
photos by Joshua Bernard
Yes, indeed, it has been twenty years since Garbage released their self-titled debut album. That’s two fucking decades! Earlier this month they released remastered versions of the record, which included a deluxe edition and a super deluxe edition, the later being a massive 62 tracks long, including all of the era’s B-sides and remixes along with some previously unreleased demos. But the biggest way they’re celebrating the album is with their current tour of major cities, 20 Years Queer, named after one of the album’s biggest hits.
“This isn’t about nostalgia. We’re not nostalgic people. This is a celebration,” Shirley Manson declared early on during their set at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston this week. I was happy to hear that, as I wasn’t there to wax nostalgic. I was there for something new and exciting, the once in a lifetime opportunity to hear their entire debut album live along with its B-sides, many of which I liked more than some of the songs that made the record. Also, I think you need to spend some time apart from something to feel nostalgic when you experience it again. Like eating Boo Berry cereal for the first time in twenty five years and recalling how you ate it every morning as a kid. But I’ve never really spent much time away from the Garbage record. I’ve been listening to it with some frequency ever since it came out. So, it still feels fresh to me. It reminds me of the entire past twenty years, not just when it was released.
The show began with the B-side “Alien Sex Fiend” playing while a short film played on the curtain in front of the band. For the most part, it showed Garbage posing for photos, doing interviews, etc, back in 1995. But it also contained OJ Simpson, Hilary Clinton and other figures who were in the limelight that year. It was certainly a trip back in time. Once it was over, the band played the B-side “Subhuman” with the curtain still in front of them, using lighting and shadows in an interesting way that made it look like they were teleporting from left to right and transforming into giants then returning to their actual size a second later. Mostly though, the curtain got the audience wound up. Everyone just wanted it to drop. Once it was gone – the second the song ended – it felt like a burst of fresh air and the band launched into “Supervixen,” the self-titled album’s vigorous opening track, made even heavier live. Everyone on the floor immediately stood up and remained standing throughout the show. Even during the lesser known B-sides, very few people sat down for a break. Clearly, people were fully immersed in this celebration. Besides, if you sat down, you couldn’t watch Shirley, who was looking gorgeous as ever, clad in a cute black outfit with her hair and make up pink, matching the feather boa she had hanging on the mic stand, a throwback to the pink feathers on the album cover.
To keep fans on their toes, the band has been changing their set list from night to night, so you never knew what was coming next. I was under the impression that they were going to play the album from front to back followed by the B-sides, but that had been ruled out when they opened with “Subhuman.” Then again, the next two songs they played were “Supervixen” and “Queer,” the first two songs on the album, so maybe they were going to play the album in order now after all. But, no, “Queer” was followed by one of my all-time favorite B-sides, “Girl Don’t Come,” which would wind up being one of the highlights of the night, the band so full of vigor, not merely playing the song but attacking it, and it sounded so vital they could record that version in the studio and release it as a single today.
As the night went on, the band charged up like the Energizer Bunny, they continued to inject B-sides in between album tracks, like “Butterfly Collector” (The Jam cover) in between “As Heaven is Wide” and “Not My Idea.” By the time Shirley introduced the B-side “Driving Lesson” by telling the audience that it was about before she could drive here, it was obvious that they were holding back some of the debut’s hits to play later in the set, as bands always do.
The excitement was palpable even when they mellowed out for a bit with “Milk,” “Fix Me Now,” “My Lover’s Box” and “Sleep.” Everywhere I turned, people were singing along, even to the B-sides. Most of these people looked like they were in their late ’30’s and ’40’s – I’m 42 myself – but there were new, younger fans in the audience, too, and they also knew the lyrics.
When the band unleashed “Vow” after “Sleep” everyone in the house was screaming, many people jumping up and down. The song, which the band gave away on cassingles (remember those?) before the album came out, has always been a fan favorite and I had trouble hearing Shirley at times because the people singing around me were so loud. But, hey, I was singing it loudly, too, so I really shouldn’t complain.
“Dog New Tricks,” one of their loop-iest songs, followed and I found myself thinking about how influential Garbage’s first album was. The music scene was a mess when it came out. There was starting to be a backlash against grunge and pop music was bland and sappy. Garbage took grunge riffs and electrified them in new ways, meanwhile writing pop hooks with big choruses you could sing along to. They weren’t just alternative in terms of genre distinction, they were the alternative to anything else that was out at the time, the one band music junkies in search of a new fix could run to.
I’d say the song that won the biggest reaction from the audience was the anthemic “Only Happy When It Rains.” When it came out, most fans just accepted that the song was about the way Shirley feels (at least sometimes). But I always thought it was making fun of grunge music. The thought made me laugh. It occurred to me that Garbage had triumphed over grunge. You don’t see Stone Temple Pilots selling out the Orpheum. Of course, I realize that drummer Butch Vig produced Nirvana’s Nevermind, arguably the biggest grunge album of all time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine that “Only Happy When It Rains” is a darkly comical parody of grunge lyrics.
I’m sure plenty of people felt nostalgic as the band played “Stupid Girl” and “#1 Crush” late in their set. But I do believe that the whole point of the 20 Years Queer tour isn’t to make them feel that way so much as to remind people that the album is still one hell of a record. And, obviously, to reward the die-hard fans by playing all of those B-sides and deep cuts live.
The encore found the band covering Vic Chesnutt’s “Kick My Ass,” which they’d done on the Sweet Relief 2 album in 1996, followed by their killer B-side “Trip My Wire,” after which they drove the audience wild with two songs from their Bleed Like Me album, “Bad Boyfriend” and “Why Do You Love Me.” Hearing those last two songs was the perfect climax for the show, both of the tracks arguably being heavier than anything on the debut, getting the amped up audience even more raucous. For me, the Bleed Like Me tracks were a reminder that the band has only gotten better and better as the years have gone on, each of their albums a diamond to behold. Here’s hoping they do a similar 20 year celebratory tour for their sophomore effort Version 2.0.