Of the many, many bands I’ve seen over the past seventeen years, one of the earliest I saw was Garbage way back in the spring of 1996. As, frankly, the quality of their albums dipped a bit, and they became less and less interesting in touring, I chose not to see them live again…until now.
But first, before it was time for the headline act, we had a support act to see. And while both my girlfriend and I had heard of The Jezabels, and thought that their “indie-dance-pop” might be worth checking out, sadly we were left slightly non-plussed. I’m not entirely convinced that this was the fault of the band, though, with the bands energetic, wanting-to-be-punchy sounds getting lost in the cavernous Brixton Academy. Plainly and simply, this wasn’t the best place to see this band – maybe their style of music would work much better in a sweaty, small club.
No such problems for Garbage dealing with a big stage nowadays. After millions of record sales (it is quite remarkable to think that their much-loved debut album, with the clear nods to Curve and My Bloody Valentine, amongst others – hardly bands that were mega-sellers – has sold over four million), and even after six or seven years off they can draw a full house at a venue this size.
And part of this is perhaps down to the strength of the return. By the time of the fourth album, Garbage looked and sounded like a band that were weary of their position, and didn’t really seem to have the fire anymore. So to see the band return with an album that actually sounded like they wanted to make it, it was an easy decision to go and see them live again, even if I had to miss their early comeback gig at the Troxy in May due to potential travel abroad (that didn’t actually happen until the following week after all!).
But then, maybe the extra couple of months helped. For a start, reports from the Troxy show suggested that the sound wasn’t great, and Brixton – for headline acts at least – has always been reliably great. And so it proved here, as the band burst onstage and without wasting any time, ripped into new album opener Automatic Systematic Habit with the verve and power of a band perhaps half their age. It helped, of course, that this song is one of their catchiest in an age, a biting, snarling takedown of a philandering lover, that zips past at a cracking pace, aided by all manner of electronics.
Automatic Systematic Habit
I Think I’m Paranoid
Shut Your Mouth
Why Do You Love Me
Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)
Blood for Poppies
Big Bright World
Man On a Wire
Only Happy When It Rains
Not Your Kind of People
Any fears that this would be a show devoted to playing as much of the new album as possible was quickly dispelled by, what I’ve realised since, was a first five songs covering each of their albums so far. Which meant some old favourites (a blistering I Think I’m Paranoid, that had that rare thing – a crowd singalong that was pretty much perfectly in tune), and at least one song I’d totally forgotten (Metal Heart).
Ok, so there was a lot of the new album played – and inexplicably a couple of so-so moments from it were played while the return-to-old-glories snarl of Battle In Me was omitted. But happily, other new album highlights were aired, including a song with the most obvious debt to Curve the band have released yet (Control), and the stompy, punky Man On A Wire saw Shirley Manson sounding like some of her post-punk predecessors while the band blazed away behind her.
As good as the new stuff is, mind, it was also fantastic to hear a band in sparkling form revisiting all corners of their back catalogue. Even at least one B-side in the form of #1 Crush, one of the earliest Garbage songs I heard and still astonishing even now, while even the overproduced, all-too-pop beautifulgarbage was at least partly redeemed by a roof-raising Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) that was a surprising centrepiece to the set.
For a band as well-drilled and as professional as they’ve become over the years, it was no surprise to find that this was a perfectly-paced set, with many of the crowd favourites saved for the end, and few songs were tinkered with too much. Only Happy When It Rains was a striking exception, though, the opening verse and chorus performed a capella to quite astonishing effect, before the band slammed in and things returned to more familiar territory.
The stop-start dynamics of Supervixen in the encore were most welcome, but best of all the gig closed with the song that first had me captivated by the band in the first place, and still, in my mind, Garbage’s greatest distillation of their influences and emotional power. That, of course, was Vow, and that opening guitar line and vocal sent shivers down my spine once again as it rung out.
Rejuvenated and ready to go once again, this has been a hell of a comeback. And of course, were they to play London again sometime in the future, I’ll be there once again. I won’t be leaving it so long again.