Garbage / Maximo Park – Digbeth Arena, Birmingham, September 8 2018

garbage-uk-tour-2018

OK, first things first.

Let’s make my position both EMPHATICALLY (you can’t get much more emphatic than emboldened italicised capitals) and eloquently clear: I did not come to this show to rubbish Garbage (pun only partially intended) or slag them off. I came to enjoy them. Predominantly because, during their 96-02 heyday, I actually rather liked them. And a large part of me still does. Besides, before they’ve even set one black boot onstage, Maximo Park (sorry Honeyblood, but there was no way I was going to make the arena by 7 on my third day on the lam at my age) have already put me in a superb mood by playing an absolute blinder: and with that in mind, I certainly can’t be accused of having deliberately approached tonight’s performance from a negative perspective.

Though I may not have followed the Geordie pop-rockers’ career as closely as I maybe should have thus far, that’s certainly going to change now: with flawless vocals, powerful melodies, crunching guitars, quirky keyboards and bucketfuls of stage presence, not only do MP have the potential to headline this event in a couple of years, but they also manage to cram twelve songs (paces ranging from midtempo to screamingly fast) into a mere 45 minutes and conjure echoes of everyone from the Bunnymen to ELO whilst always sounding resolutely like themselves. Of those tracks, Risk To Exist, Undercurrents, What Equals Love, What Did We Do To You To Deserve This and the closing Apply Some Pressure stand out most, but in truth, all are great: they seem like extremely likeable blokes too, which always helps when endearing oneself to an audience maybe less familiar with your work.

A firm one-nil, then, to the Toon Army lads: after which, following a short bog/fag-break respite, our headliners make their entrance with the smouldering, misty torch rock of Afterglow. And, I must say, a spectacular entrance it is too: as Shirley Manson, pin-thin arms outstretched, drifts into view in a floor-length pink and silver PVC ballgown that immediately recalls a certain other great Shirley of British pop, my first immediate thought is “this is what a bona fide star looks like” As one would expect, the audience response borders on the rapturous: in addition, whereas the largest contingency at the preceding evening’s show (The The) had comprised ‘old geezers of my age’, there’s a whole range of generations in the house tonight (or, should we say, outside of it) which proves that in terms of influence at least, Garbage still hold considerable sway over their particular subgenre.

Admittedly, as they charge through their opening two or three numbers, deliberately sourced from the lesser-known annals of their career, it’s extremely hard not to be impressed: it must be hard for any band with a considerable pedigree to pick a setlist that pleases everybody, and as one who detests ‘meat’n’potatoes’ shows that resignedly pander to the lowest common denominator with bog-obvious choices, I find their bravery commendable. Four songs in, they even drop my favourite obscurity Wicked Ways into the programme, its stomping electro-glam riffage and strutting beats inspiring much pogoing from anyone who, in an age of ‘digital selection’, actually bothered to play their second album in full: other outstanding deep cuts aired include Hammering In My Head, Medication and Lick The Pavement, although conversely, even the most hardcore fan would probably struggle to recognise Get Busy With The Fizzy (from this year’s 20th anniversary Version 2:0 redux) and more importantly, it’s just not a very good song. But I guess that can be overlooked. Unfortunately, what cannot be, and becomes harder to ignore as the evening progresses, is their particularly irksome tendency towards ‘knowing self-reference’ – a trait which first begins to manifest itself during the aforementioned …Ways and very quickly proceeds to grate.

Sure, it’s perfectly acceptable to insert a snatch of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus into said song in order to acknowledge that you’ve directly teefed its structure: ditto, the immediately succeeding Special has always honoured in its final verse its debt to the Pretenders’ Talk Of The Town, but sadly, once they’ve started down this ‘wink wink’ path, they can’t stop, and from hereon in, things are never quite as much fun again. 13 X Forever features an entire verse of the Kinks’ Tired Of Waiting, You Look So Fine riffs on Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams: am I at a gig, or some bizarre post-ironic karaoke club? As if that weren’t enough, they then throw in two actual covers back to back: I’ll certainly commend the unusual choices themselves (Big Star’s Thirteen and The Seeds’ Can’t Seem To Make You Mine) not to mention the time they’ve taken to rework both into their own style, but despite the latter having previously appeared on a B-side, is this really what most fans have paid upwards of £35 to see? Granted, the run of classics that ensues- Sleep Together, Push It, The World Is Not Enough, When I Grow Up and I Think I’m Paranoid, the latter featuring a crowdsurfing Manson leading the front rows in boisterous gang chorus, partially restores my faith in proceedings – but despite the fact that it all looks great, I still can’t help feeling increasingly disconnected from the whole shebang.

A great part of this may, of course, stem from the fact that much like 20 years ago, the sound is far too clean and processed: in all honesty, there’s always (with the exception of the underrated and neglected Bleed Like Me album) been a distinct lack of grit and dirt under the band’s collective fingernails, and coupled with the relative anonymity of the other four members compared to La Manson, it can make for a slightly anaemic sonic palette. This last is also not helped in any way by her own constant referral to Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker as “my beautiful band”: the middle section of Dumb (which sees her leap athletically onto the back of Vig’s drumkit) and the extended jam-outro to The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (on which she dons a guitar for the first and last time) aside, one sometimes gets the feeling she’d be just as happy if the other three weren’t there. Indeed, though the quartet co-write practically every song together, there’s strangely little interaction between any of the members, most of whom only ever step from the shadows to occasionally switch from guitar to keyboards.

And then there’s the ranting. Ever the diplomat, Plus One describes the red-haired, skeletal Edinbronian as a “feisty force of nature”: yet personally I’m not so sure, and if there is a force at work here, it’s more an unpleasant combination of petulance, preachiness and overripe braggadocio rather than the unbridled positivity of the preceding hour. Seriously, I’ve never heard such delusional, chip-on-shoulder drivel from a frontperson’s mouth in all my 32-plus years of gig attendance: I thought Roger Waters was bad enough, but this takes things to a whole new level, and as we move further away from the irreverent insouciance of rock’n’roll (one of a long list of things she makes repeatedly clear she “doesn’t give a fuck about”, incidentally) and into the murky depths of cringeworthy pantomime, I don’t know quite where to look or put myself.

shirley-manson-elizabeth-fraser
Shirley Manson meets the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. 

I mean, to address your fans with declarations like “hello, beautiful Birmingham, you’re shining, you’re precious, but I don’t know where the fuck I am because I arrived here in a taxi” is one thing: to then remind us that you haven’t been bothered to return since playing the NEC in 1998, only you can’t remember if it actually was the NEC because you’re “old” (she’s actually 52, which in today’s terms is practically teenage) is by comparison little short of disdainful. And the worst is still yet to come. Claims to “not give a shit about politics” are followed by crowd-baiting, follow-my-leader, fish-in-a-barrel yells of “fuck Trump!”: platitudes about how women shouldn’t have to “look sexy” onstage follow several songs during which she both lifts her skirt and grabs suggestively at her crotch: most amazing of all, however, is the speech outlining how Garbage made it without any music industry interference, consistently champion underdogs who never get airplay, and are the ultimate example of an “independent band with an independent attitude

I can only assume that it must have been some other Garbage, then, that were formed by the bloke who produced Nevermind, signed to Virgin, had about twenty chart hits including a fucking Bond theme (pipping a far better song by Pete Fij – now there’s a true indie artist – to the post in the process) headlined Reading above New Order, appeared on the soundtrack of practically every ‘alt-culture’ movie or TV show made between 1996 and 2001, spent oodles of cash on making albums that cleverly amalgamated the most radio-friendly elements of grunge, Goth, metal, techno, indie pop, hip-hop and trip-hop into a saleable whole, and effectively ruled the post-Gallagher airwaves for half a decade. Silly me, I get so confused. Ironically, Shirlmegirl is half-right; both her former acts (Goodbye Mr Mackenzie and Angelfish) were fiercely independent to the point of not really getting anywhere, and Garbage are technically now an indie act signed to their own label. However, that’s only because while they still attract a wide cross-section of fans (barring, naturally, “sexist pigs”, who are apparently verboten) there’s not actually that many of us left anymore, and on the whole, their time has passed.

Hence also why, in 2018, they’re playing this 2,000 capacity venue (may tickets for which have been knocked out cheap on Showfilmfirst) and not the NEC/Genting Arena: the fact that there’s a three-stage ‘classic indie’ bash on in all three rooms of the 02 Academy tonight probably doesn’t help either, but even that got downscaled from the aforesaid stadium, and to me, that more or less says it all as regards the saleability of such music in today’s climate. In short, no wonder she thinks we’re “amazing and transcendent”: we showed up!! Unfortunately, in return, what we get is an elongated diatribe concerning how a woman wearing a frock so garish even RuPaul would think twice about it likes to “dress entirely in black”, a series of  ‘remind me to never take whatever she’s on’ backhanded anti-compliments about how, as “they’re unlikely to be back in another twenty years” (which, seeing as all the other members will be about 83 by then, I would imagine to be a fair supposition), we should all somehow feel privileged to be here, and a gig that rapidly deteriorates from a practical masterclass in theatrical presentation into an utter farce.

If what Manson actually meant was that we should all be as thankful to have seen the show as Garbage were to perform it, and that this is effectively their ‘big emotional farewell’, then I’m sorry, but they blew the occasion big time: moreover, to announce their intention to end with “a song by an all-time hero without whom we wouldn’t even be here” only to then play the most perfunctory, half-hearted cover (yep, yet another bloody cover) of Bowie’s Starman I’ve ever heard, is just taking the piss. Come on duckies, if you idolise the bloke that much, would it really have hurt to learn the words or what fucking key the riff was in? I wouldn’t mind, but I saw about three amateur bands cover it the week he died, and they were all note-perfect. All I can hope is that if ‘our Dave’ is sat up on some star somewhere watching over us, he takes the whole thing with the same self-effacing, candid South London humour that made him the true gent he was…

Tonight, Shirley Manson, and therefore Garbage, periodically held the whole world (or at least the entire West Midlands) in their bony vampiric hands. However, they all too often traded it for a repeat ticket down Self-Parody Avenue – and though I remain grateful to the PR people (with whom I do sincerely hope I haven’t now permanently blotted my copybook) for the passes, I now severely regret not going down Kings Heath to see the Darling Buds instead. At least Andrea Lewis Jarvis doesn’t have an ego the size of Mount Rushmore, and simply gets on with the business of playing music. Sure, there were several occasions, mainly within the first hour, when the Scots-American quintet delivered precisely the kind of scintillating, adrenaline’n’amphetamine pop noir I craved- and, as you might imagine, those were the bits I loved. But by the second half, the cinematic atmospherics had for the most part succumbed to vapid, narcissistic cabaret: and despite my dislike, as clearly stated earlier, for cheesy greatest hits shows, I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking that had they played just one of either Queer, Vow, Stupid Girl or Only Happy When It Rains, they could have easily eschewed the extraneous schpiel.

In years to come, my fellow attendees will talk of this show to either their own kids (assuming they have any) or subsequent generations of youthful concertgoers: certainly, ‘twas the kind of night from which legends originate, although sadly, I fear they’ll probably be for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, I’m surprised they aren’t gibbering about it all over Facebook and Twitter already: then again, as social media is yet another of the things Aunt Shirl claims to not give a flying fuck for whilst simultaneously being deeply concerned about it, that’s possibly for the best. One thing’s for certain, though: you really had to see it to believe it, even if, over a week later, I’m still not altogether sure what I saw or whether or not I enjoyed it.

The strangest of the strange, or the lamest of the lame? Pass…

DARIUS DREWE