Review: Shirley Manson still at the top of her game in career-spanning Garbage set in Sydney

When one thinks of rock groups from the late 90s and early 00s, few are more pseudonymous than American/Scottish group Garbage. Between 1995 and 2005 the group – made up of lead vocalist Shirley Manson, iconic record producer and drummer Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson – produced some of the most iconic songs and acclaimed albums of that period.

This week marked the group’s second Australian tour post-hiatus (which famously began as they prematurely concluded their Bleed Like Me tour in Australia in October 2005), though is sadly without Vig in tow. The first was in 2013, when the group infamously had to cancel their Sydney performance at Soundwave, much to my own disappointment. Having missed them pre-hiatus, tonight’s show at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion marked my first time experiencing the group live – a group who I loved in my youth but hadn’t kept up on in more recent years. I’m sure many in the room would have said the same, and so it’s of no surprise some of their newer material, taken from their latest album Strange Little Birds (released earlier this year), wasn’t as well known by the crowd as their earlier material. It was, however, otherwise something of a greatest hits set – one that fans welcomed and saw a joyous crowd singalong to the songs they loved and the ones they forgot they loved.

“Supervixen” off their self-titled debut fit into the latter category for me, the first of five tracks from their self-titled debut to make the setlist, kicked off the set, as Manson hit the mic, arms tucked behind her back, the band kicking in and sounding every bit as good as I presume they ever have, Manson’s voice included. “I Think I’m Paranoid” off Version 2.0 and “Stupid Girl” off their debut followed, sounding rockier and more fleshed out than I remembered; Manson’s vocals also coming out stronger. It was a song you knew and loved, but the live experience showed us a song that have evolved over the decades.

Manson got more talkative as the set went on, first paying respect to the support acts, “We were honoured to follow Olympia and a Tiny Little Houses. We wish them all the luck in their careers. We hear they work their balls off. I like a band who work. I’ve got no time for bands who think they’re special and sit back.”

As she tied her hair back, “Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you look ugly, as long as you’re having fun”. And of course about the politics of today, “Every time I pick up my phone and watch the news I just feel despair. It feels like there’s this tidal wave towards intolerance… I want everyone to be cool with me, so in asking that of everybody I have to put some effort to be cool with everyone else. The more we’re kind to one and other the more people will be kind of us.”

In light of the political mood, she called Version 2.0’s fourth single “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”, “pretty appropriate for now if you ask me”. It was easily a highlight of the night (and she wasn’t wrong”. She also went on to dedicate “Sex is Not the enemy” “…to the LGBTQ community, for giving us a career… for supporting us when others wouldn’t.”

She reflected on writing “Bleed Like Me”, “…you think you’ll get everything worked out when you’re grown up, but we’re always just a big hot mess”, and had a lot to say about the band’s love for Australia.

“We have a lot to thank Australia for,” she started, going on to plead to the crowd to meet internet sensation George The Wombat, watch Vikings for Aussie actor Travis Fimmel (thanking him “for filling in the gap until we get Jon snow back in or lives”). She paid tribute to Kylie Minogue, and talked about how their career started with the support of triple j. She signed off this part of proceedings with, “Great people of Australia long may you reign, please keep giving us joy, we need it,” before jumping into a certain song they gave to Baz Lurhmann for Romeo and Juliet… “#1 Crush”, which is now 20 years old.

When it comes to the group’s performance, set against an excellent light show, the band very much stand back, as they always have, and let Shirley command the crowd and the stage. And she delivered an intoxicating, often theatrical performance, even for some of her oldest material, during which you’d forgive her for phoning it in. Take “Vow” for instance, off their debut – which you would certainly call one of the band’s heavier numbers. After a brief glitch at the start of the song, Manson seemed to channel the same anger and frustration that bore the song over 20 years ago, pacing the stage and screaming down the mic. It was as powerful now as it was then.

Other highlights of the set included “Special”, which garnered a huge response and a notable singalong; “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” off the new album, which may have just been my favourite moment of the whole set – a stunningly beautiful and epic number; “Bleed Like Me”; “Shut Your Mouth” (naturally); “Only Happy When It Rains”; and another favourite from a distant time, “Push It”, which closed the main set.

A three song encore took us to almost two hours, with “Queer” bringing us back to their 1995 debut, “Empty” from their latest and “Cherry Lips” wrapping up the night with what is arguably their biggest hit, and providing the night’s greatest singalong.

There’s nothing about tonight that felt like we were watching band who were cashing in on past successes to pay the bills – as is the case for many bands from this era. In spite of the odd hiatus, this is a group who haven’t really stopped making music together since the mid-90s, always coming back together when the time felt right. And with a well balanced set, fans would have found highlights from all eras of the band’s career – including their latest album. And more than anything, seeing Garbage live remains about witnessing Manson in action; an artist who still displays the tenacity and vibrancy to match any other performer out there of any age or musician persuasion (likely putting most to shame in the process). And that is a joy to experience.

SETLIST:

Super Vixen
I Think I’m Paranoid
Stupid Girl
Automatic Systematic Habit
Blood for Poppies
The Trick Is to Keep Breathing
Sex Is Not the Enemy
Blackout
Magnetized
Special
#1 Crush
Even Though Our Love Is Doomed
Why Do You Love Me
Night Drive Loneliness
Bleed Like Me
Shut Your Mouth
Vow
Only Happy When It Rains
Push It

Encore:
Queer
Empty
Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)

Garbage’s tour around Australia continues with A Day on the Green until December 4th. For tickets and more details head to: http://www.frontiertouring.com/garbage

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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