Concert Review: Garbage Rocks the Suburbs

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It’s a sold-out Fillmore Silver Spring for a Sunday night show featuring Garbage. Very sold out. The veteran rockers take the stage at 9:04 pm in front of a diversely-aged crowd, some of whom appear to have been barrel-aged. Butch Vig bounds out enthusiastically and the rest of the band follows, matching his energetic entrance. As fate would have it, precipitation is raining down outside the venue. That has to be an omen, right?

The band starts with  the first cut on their eponymous 1995 release. The track is of voting age but their riffs on their own 18-year old riffs sound fresh as daisies smell. Garbage is blessed with a legendary producer in the group, and they don’t start albums wantonly; “Supervixen” immediately commands attention and let’s everyone know that their idea of control is nothing but an illusion. It was then, it remains so now.

“…bow down to me…”

Shirley Manson’s voice is at first colored with a wonderful huskiness that sounds vaguely Fiona Apple-ish. Damn, these guys still have it. That “it” that few have. That “it” that all rock bands wish they had. Her black, wispy, and translucent cape is blowing alluringly. Her shock of ginger hair is drawn tight and the arranged conically on the back of the top of her head. It seems both an allusion to the mod-ish past and simultaneously futurist.

“Queer.” Wait, are we at one of these shows where a 90s band plays an album straight through? Regardless, this is rock at its revelatory best. They intersperse samples sparsely into their full-throated, guitar-heavy rock and friggin’ roll. A hetero couple is making out at the bar…they’re big on irony, apparently. Blissfully unaware, the band is throwing down. They haven’t forgotten what they’re doing on a stage; the arrangements and the musicianship are just….tight. And as you’d expect from a band that has reached the very top — remember just how omnipresent Garbage once was? — they’re particularly well-lighted…bespoke in black and shrouded in white light, they’re apparitional visions. They’re living in chiaroscuro.

Pulsating orchids and yellows signal the arrival of fresh material from their 2012 release, Not Your Kind of People. Video arrives behind for “Automatic Systematic Habit, which has a poppy-like-Pink chorus and which should probably be called “Dirty Little Secret” given how many times that phrase is uttered. Shirley seems energized by a song that isn’t 18 years old, and she steps up the rock star persona. She’s vicious. Unattainable. She selectively spews charisma and stoicism, highlighting their polarity alongside that of joy and pain.

It’s back to the Delorean for “Hammering in My Head,” off of Version 2.0 (probably their best album). We now have full-on club lighting. We’ve got smoke. We’ve got shadows. And if we have any epileptics, they’d best beware. More smoke. More shadow. It’s modern, danceable Goth.

You should be sleeping my love
Tell me what you’re dreaming of…”

This is a club remix arrangement of a song that was pretty clubby at its inception. It possesses that latent tension that exists in all great rock, revealing the existence of a journey whose path is uncertain and outcome unknown. Oh, and apparently we’re going from Tokyo to Los Angeles via bullet train. This really is futurist. I wonder if they have a PreCrime Department…

“Sweat it on out.”

Shirley thanks the Live Nation venue for their $2k donation to a charity…my rudimentary math indicates that at a $50 ticket price, they donated about 40 tickets / 2000 sold. Still, it’s a nice gesture for what is hopefully a worthy charity. And maybe that lyric is a euphemistic reference to how those dollars were earned. That would be deeply intelligent subtext, no?

They jam out a few impromptu bars of Madonna‘s “Like a Virgin,” making musical allusion to the fact that they’ve never played this venue — definitely not this city — in the past. Shirley drops promises of a new record, declaring, “We are resurrected…it’s official.”

“Special.” They’re also anthemic. Officially anthemic, actually, as sing-a-long moments quickly emerge.

Do you have an opinion?
A mind of your own

Shirley swashbuckles around the stage, using the mic to eviscerate her foes, whether real or created. She channels her inner Chrissie Hynde, vocalizing,

I’m looking for [a new] you
I’m looking for [a new] you
I thought you were special

There’s some sort of trouble down front, slightly stage right. Whatever it is, Shirley is irked, and briefly stops the show with a glare. She pauses and talks about inappropriate behavior, her mindset having been shaken. She knows this, and she knows she needs to change her mood before we change ours. So, she shakes it up with our second impromptu treat, a stanza from Die Antwoord‘s “I Think You’re Freaky.” It’s definitely freaky, and apparently it cleanses her soul so she can once again attend to ours.

I think you’re freaky and I like you a lot

This is accompanied by robotic movements, which 9/10 therapists will tell you is an essential step on the road to catharsis. And then followed by the revelation that Steve Marker’s family is in the house. If they came to D.C. expecting to see cherry blossoms…sorry.

A thundering guitar riff opens “Why Do You Love Me,” and that same riff brilliantly bridges the chorus back to the verse. Shirley’s frenetic jabs puncture the same air being tattooed by her always intense vocals and movements. She lays out her neuroses for the world to examine.

I’m not as pretty as those girls in magazines
I think you’re sleeping with a friend of mine
I have no proof but I think I’m right
Why do you love me
Why do you love me, it’s driving me crazy.”

[Sidebar]. This is the point at which moral obligation requires a spade to be called a spade. Shirley welcomed her bandmate’s family to the show at the point just before she spewed what might be the most guano crazy lyrics in the Garbage catalog. She basically describes that girl who texts thirty times in an hour, half of the texts asking why her texts are being ignored. This is the girl that then methodically traces whatever steps she thinks you may have taken, and tries to act all innocent when a “chance” meeting occurs. Guano crazy…crazy enough to have forgotten about the smoking gun that is thirty texts of evidence. But fortunately in rock and roll, guano crazy is an essential part of the frontman / frontwoman’s job description. In real life, it’s more of a red flag shaken in front of Ratón. Get in the way, and prepare to be gored.

I would die for you.”

“#1 Crush” ratchets down the crazy from psycho to psychotic. It has that ominous dark alley of a bottom end that is the sound of someone else’s footsteps in the darkness. Add in Shirley’s wonderfully off-kilter vocals, which hint that those footsteps belong to the zombie ex-girlfriend who JUST LOVES YOU SO MUCH that she would die for you. And by die for you, she means you need to die so that you can be together. As zombies. It’s also a dead-on encapsulation of the feeling that occurs in the thrombosis of the young, the desperate, the in-unrequted-love. It hits the emotive nail on the head, capturing all those un-endurable feelings that signify the end of the world as the young (ex-)lover knows it.

Throughout the set, each song is its own journey. Each journey is fraught with danger and doubt, characterized by steps of inadequacy taken forward under the shroud of confidence. Shirley’s nail polish gleams electric pink under black light, swirling menacingly like mini glow-sticks and then taking firm hold of the mic with unsettling steadiness. What better time for “Paranoid?” The sing-a-long returns, about 1,000 attendees joining with enthusiastic (if mostly off-key) voices.

Bend me break me anyway you need me all I want is you.

Again, wonder washes over the senses. Damn, the band is tight. Damn, she’s a rock star. And damn it, why are they (rock stars) in such short supply these days?

Their updated version melds the industrial dance of bands like Crystal Castles with Garbage’s own guitar-driven electro-rock. It’s definitely driven, maybe rushing onward at around 180 bpm. While I’m trying to count, one of those barrel-aged couples is trying to drunkenly solve all their domestic problems. If they’re not going to be solid Americans and just let the rock provide some escapism, they should go somewhere else.

A breather of a ballad follows that buzzsaw burner. It’s yet another deployment of contrast, an ethos to which the band seems particularly attentive. Whether alternating the current flowing through their amps or that coursing through the veins of the faithful, they’re doing it with a purpose.

“Cherry Lips.” Shirley makes a statement supporting the cross-dressing transgendered crew. (Are they here?) It receives muted applause from a crowd that didn’t really know what to make of it. A killer candy-coated chorus gets ’em moving again.

Go baby go baby
hey hey I’m looking at you.

Rock can evolve. It can be poignant. Even as it disappears from the airwaves it has a ready and willing audience. She sees one and thanks it. She appreciates it. She missed it. She made excuses to stay away, hiding behind her fears of inadequacy. And then she got over herself and got back on the horse. The band is riding along with a head of steam, wonderfully sludgy while proceeding with pinpoint precision. Hard. Then soft. Then hard again. Their contribution to rock has always been evolved in a way that wasn’t successfully replicated. Maybe Muse learned more than most. Shirley’s voice adds body and shines down low on the ballads; her range is impressive, and as it rises with the occasion it morphs to become soft, sensual, vulnerable.

The trick is to keep breathing.

It’s a good time for that reminder. We all catch our breath. We exhale.

When I grow up I’ll be stable
When I grow up I’ll turn the tables.

Now she’s vigorous. Athletically martial. A bit frightening, in that way that must be watched. She’s the zumba instructor who kicks everyone’s ass. Part sadist, perhaps.

I’m Only Happy When it Rains” begins with a contemplative arrangement then explodes like…like…a cloudburst. Butch Vig’s drumming provides the thunder, guitars are thick bolts of lightning, and the audience could be excused if their instinctual reaction was to run for cover.

Gonna knock you down
I’m gonna pick you up.

The drunk couple isn’t getting along any better. She flips him the bird and stumbles away. He grimaces. And the drunk couple isn’t alone…another drunk middle-aged woman stumbles by, her tolerance also not what it once was. (It turns out that the only real difference between a publicly drunk 23-year old and a publicly drunk 53-year old is the amount of leopard print they’re willing to wear out). The bird-flipping female returns…she forgot her card at the bar. He’s apoplectic, or just whiskey drunk. (Odds on the latter). Except, she didn’t leave her card at the bar, she put it in her pocket. Embarrassing, and classic.

Let’s pretend we get a happy end.

This has been a total victory for the band, a fantastic show. The only quibble — other than the presence of Drunken Couple #2 — is that the vocals should be a bit higher in the mix…particularly when Shirley reaches down deep. They close out a 90 minute set with a Fleetwood Mac cover (“Dreams”) in the midst of “You Look So Fine”.

Encore. An EDM-ish entry to “Stupid Girl” perfectly updates a song that arrived way ahead of its time. “Push It.” We have definitely done that, particularly the superfan in a Redskins hat, sweatshirt, and coat who pinballs past me looking like a strong candidate for not-making-it-home-safely-tonight. “Beloved Freak” closes it out, somewhat curiously, but perhaps not; there’s a logic to having a set that started with the first song on their first record close with the last song on their last record.

The partisans spill outside through a bizarrely convoluted crowd control maze, and the snow/rain has stopped. It’s jarringly cold and unfortunately windy, but everyone (not discussing relationship problems during the show) is leaving happy that Garbage decided to once again rain down the rock and roll.


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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.