The band Garbage is celebrating 21 years of angst-driven Art-Rock with a cracking new record and a world tour. ModCon02 happened to catch two of their shows 3 days apart. His report follows.
July 27th – What The Hell Am I Doing In Sayreville, New Jersey?
Despite a broken wrist and a non-functioning tail light- both right side, oddly enough – I’m wending my way through New Jersey rush hour traffic. I’m en route to see Garbage and Kristin Kontrol at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville. It’s my first trip to Sayreville and the Starland so consequently I’m a tad on edge. Fancy name aside, the one thing I keep hearing from anyone who has been there is that it’s apparently located in the Middle Of Nowhere. Every time the name ‘Starland Ballroom’ comes up, it is this fact that is mentioned without fail.
“How’s the sound?” I ask a co-worker in the days before the show.
“It’s ok” he replied “but it’s out in the boondocks.”
“Like what? Is it hard to find?”
“Kinda. It’s just sort of in the woods.”
Funnily enough, to get to this Middle Of Nowhere, Out In The Boondocks venue, I have to drive through New Brunswick and East Brunswick. Neither are exactly what you’d call “rural”. Naturally, this means there is an inordinate amount of road work and lane shifts with really dodgy signage. Just the sort of thing you want to be navigating with a broken right rear turn signal.
(This would have been a lot easier in Pennsylvania, as PA. drivers never use their goddamn turn signals. Yeah. I said it.)
Shockingly, the directions I printed out from the Starland website are proving to be mostly accurate. Still, as I make my way through a labyrinth of orange cones and temporary lane dividers, I start making mental notes for the return trip. If it’s this bad going in, coming back is going to be a fucking nightmare.
Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, I’m riding through quaint little town streets. The directions keep nudging me towards narrower roads, and trees start to crowd in. I pass by a building or two, fenced off with big signs warning “ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING” or “MUST SHOW I.D. TO ENTER”. Otherwise? There’s a notable absence of civilization.
Where the hell am I? What goes on out here? And who thought this was the place to set up a live-concert venue?
As I’m wondering these and less coherent thoughts, I turn a corner and a giant blinking sign points me towards parking for the Starland Ballroom. I’m here! In the middle of nowhere! To see Garbage! And Kristin Kontrol!
Pardon me while I have a strange interlude:
I got tickets to this show when I went looking to see what (if any) dates Kristin Kontrol would be performing in my surrounding areas. Kristin Kontrol is the latest project from Kristin Welchez, formerly known as Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls. The debut album X-Communicate is one of the best of 2016. When I saw this date on the band website, I clicked on it to buy tickets and only then did I realize that they were opening for Garbage. It says something about how great the Kristin Kontrol record is that I thought of Garbage as a nice bonus.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not a Garbage fan. I have been ever since their debut, 21 years ago. Shirley Manson is a bona fide Rock Goddess in my book, and their back catalog holds way more hits than misses. But I sort of assumed that a band that was so heavily defined by their production sound and studio creation might be a bit, well, dull to watch live. I imagined it being all Shirley Manson up front while three mole-men huddled in the back behind keyboards and drum risers.
All of which I mention only because, honestly? As I walked into the Starland Ballroom there was a part of me that was seriously considering watching the Kristin Kontrol set and then sticking around for a chunk of Garbage but… maybe leaving early. Y’know. Depending on how dull I found Garbage’s set.
As the crowd filled in, I was struck at the sheer variety on display. Younger, older, gothy, not-gothy, white, black, latino, asian, gay, straight and all points between. This was a fucking diverse crowd. Given that we were out in the Middle Of Nowhere, I was doubly impressed.
Kristin Kontrol takes the stage around 8. Three instrumentalists and Kristin herself on vocals. The crowd claps politely and I suddenly realize – Oh. Shit. This crowd is solidly here for Garbage. I start to have sweaty memories of all the opening acts I’ve seen having to face down the rabid fans of the headliner.
This could get ugly.
If Kristin is unnerved, she doesn’t show it. Instead she thanks the crowd and says, “Garbage was one of my first ever concerts. I’m one of you” and then starts a song that… I’ve never heard before. I later discover it’s an as yet unreleased b-side called ‘Baby Are You In’. I’m just thrilled to be hearing a brand new Kristin Kontrol song, so lack of familiarity is not a problem. Even better, it’s quickly apparent that Kristin’s vocal prowess is not the result of studio sweetening – she has an amazing voice. The set lasts 30 minutes, and for my taste it’s over far too soon. Despite my worst fears, the surrounding crowd is attentive and even appreciative. I relax a bit. Bullet dodged.
Then the stage is cleared and made ready for Garbage. At this point, I’m still pondering ducking out after a few songs. Or at least abandoning my spot in the crowd for one of the bars. But I’m nice and close, so I stay where I am for the moment.
The lights dim, the crowd roars and Garbage take the stage. They open with ‘Supervixen’ – the first track off their first album, and… uh… well… Any thought I had of “ducking out early” vanishes. This is not a bunch of bored studio musicians. Manson stands center, flanked on her left by Duke Erikson and on her right by Steve Marker. I’m so close I can see Manson’s eyes and they are staring out at a spot seemingly a foot above my head and 10,000 miles away. She’s not really moving, but the effect is electrifying: I literally can’t take my eyes off her. Except that I suddenly notice how Marker and Erickson are like different versions of a prize fighter entering a ring. Erikson is languid and fluid, while Marker seems to be almost attacking his instrument with barely restrained fury. The weird shrieking whine of Garbage’s sound is revealed to me to be less about studio trickery and more about the very distinct attitudes these guys bring to their playing. The crowd is going insane.
As they break into the next number – ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’ from their 1998 lp Version 2.0 – I realize that I have in a sense wandered into the equivalent of a super fans meeting. The crowd is practically singing every word back at Manson. The waves of utter joy being hurled at the stage are almost… I would say ‘frightening’ but it’s all too euphoric.
Which is good, because from the way I see Manson glare to her left and make ‘up’ motions with her hand I gather there are some technical issues. Everything sounds great to me, but clearly something is going wrong. After the third song, Manson halts the show and the lights go extra dim. She apologizes for “technical problems” and the woman who minutes before was staring with such intensity at something only she could see begins to chat amiably with the crowd while whatever the problem is gets sorted out.
And so begins an amazing night of Shirley Manson being one of the most real and vulnerable performers I’ve ever witnessed – while at the same time being one of the most ferocious and riveting. She talks to the crowd. She stops security from throwing out one guy who was a little too into the show. She starts ‘Beloved Freak’ and restarts it twice, before abandoning it entirely. She plays guitar for ‘My Lover’s Box’ and of course it’s a wickedly pink guitar. She throws shapes. She dedicates ‘Bleed Like Me’ to a long-time fan in one of the most touching interactions I’ve ever seen between between a performer and a listener, and then forgets the words in the middle. Luckily Duke mouths them at her and she carries on, pausing only to mutter “this is a fiasco!”
It’s far from that, of course. I’d forgotten how truly great some of these songs are. ‘Special’. ‘The Trick Is To Keep Breathing’. ‘Push It’. Hearing them live gives me a whole new appreciation of them. I turn to a complete stranger and say “this is one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen!” and I mean it.
The high point comes when she introduces new song ‘Even Though Our Love Is Doomed’ with a story about how “…so-called friends” gave her zero feedback on the new album. And zero feedback is probably worse to Shirley Manson than negative feedback. She dedicates it to the crowd in the room, thanking us for sticking with them for 21 years. The song is a slow-burn, dramatic powerhouse – and when it’s over, I swear, the room just erupts. For 30 seconds it’s like hearing those old recordings of The Beatles at Shea Stadium: just a wall of white noise, overpowering everything around it. It was one of the most genuinely transcendent moments I’ve ever been privileged to share in. Even Manson seems momentarily caught off guard.
At show’s end I stagger away, reeling from what I’ve just witnessed. As much as I’ve always liked Garbage I never imagined I’d walk out of a concert of theirs physically shaking. I feel like the luckiest kid in the world!
And then, there at the merch table is Kristin Kontrol herself. Just hanging out, saying hello to whoever comes up. I wait in line and get a copy of X-Communicate which she graciously signs. I tell her how it’s my favorite album of the year after Bowie’s Blackstar (which it is) but what I REALLY should be saying is ‘thank you so much for getting me here to see one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever had the luck to witness’. Somehow I have the presence of mind to not gush like an idiot, so then obviously I turn and walk out the wrong door.
Driving home, the construction completely fucks me over and I spend an awkward hour driving in circles through New Brunswick before finally getting back on 95 and heading home. I’m still shaking slightly as I crawl into my bed.
July 30 – Why Does Fate Want To Keep Me Out Of Philadelphia?
When I purchased my ticket to the Sayreville show, I had noted that there would be a show at the Fillmore in Philadelphia. But, at the time, the dates didn’t line up with my schedule, so I opted for the Wednesday show over the Saturday show. Truth be told, if I hadn’t been busy I would have bought a ticket to Philly and not bothered with the more “out of the way” Sayreville. As it happened, I subsequently broke my wrist and all sorts of things got chucked out the window. So there I was; suddenly able to go to the Philly show.
After seeing how blindingly great the Starland show was, I was sorely tempted to go to the Fillmore. I held off at first, thinking two shows in one week is a little over-indulgent, but… eventually I folded like a cheap suit. I bought the ticket and made plans to head in with fellow Echobase comrade Wiizzy Wiig. As opposed to a solo trip out to the Middle Of Nowhere with a malfunctioning tail light, this was going to be absurdly easy!
Then the torrential rains hit.
By 5:00 on the day of the show, it seemed very possible that rather than drive to Philadelphia I should be thinking about building an Ark of some sort. Roads everywhere were flooding. Trees were falling. Police were telling people to “sit tight”. Given that my last trip to Philly had been the occasion where I broke my wrist, I started to wonder if some greater force was trying to keep me out of the city of my birth.
Luckily, Wiizzy Wiig doesn’t hold any truck with superstitious nonsense so we hydroplaned our way into Philadelphia, arriving safely and more or less soundly.
The Philadelphia Fillmore is roughly twice the size of Starland Ballroom. It appears to be a converted factory, and if that suggests to you a big open space with lots of hard surfaces for sound to echo off of, you are correct. Add in a few chandeliers and you’ve got the picture. I’d been warned repeatedly that the sound at this venue was “subpar”, but it looked nice. The stage was big enough to accommodate Garbage’s “circling leopards” banner, so that was a plus.
I’d heard through the interwebs that Kristin Kontrol was suffering from respiratory issues, but you wouldn’t have known from her performance. If possible, she actually sounded better than three nights previously. I was happy to note that more people in the audience were obviously fans and there to see her as well as Garbage. One fellow, bless him, had even brought her some sort of herbal remedy tea for the respiratory issues. As before, 30 minutes went by all too quickly. I look forward to seeing a full-on Kristin Kontrol concert in the not-too distant future. It’s gonna be epic.
Now, here’s the interesting thing.
Garbage came out and performed an absolute pin-perfect show. Same basic set as Sayreville. No technical foul ups, except an out of tune guitar forcing a restart of ‘Special’. (Shirley ominously promised “consequences” for the guitar tech, but as she’s married to him I doubt it’ll be too severe.) The sound at Fillmore was nowhere near as atrocious as everyone had led me to believe. The stage looked amazing and everyone acquitted themselves admirably.
And it wasn’t a patch on the Sayreville show.
Oh, it was a great show, don’t get me wrong. But something was off. It wasn’t the band. It wasn’t the venue.
It was the crowd.
I don’t know why it is, but Philly crowds have a strange, “hot or cold” attitude that baffles me. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe everyone was wiped from bailing water out of their basements or some such, but the fact remains… this crowd was just not as “on” as the crowd in Sayreville. (It also seemed less diverse than the Sayreville crowd for being twice as big, but I digress.) Again, nothing to do with the band. Garbage played their heart out. Toward the end, with intense performances of ‘Blackout’, ‘Push It’ and ‘Vow’ they even managed to gut punch the crowd up. And if ever there was a night for the song ‘I’m Only Happy When It Rains’ then tonight was that night in spades.
As we ambled out into the muggy July night, both Wiizzy Wiig and I agreed that the crowd was perplexingly muted. I told him about my night in Sayreville; about the sheer intensity of the performances and how brilliant it was, even though from a technical standpoint tonight’s show had gone off more or less flawlessly. I wondered which show the bands would consider being the better of the two. And what was the factor that made one night’s crowd so intense but the other one merely… average?
In the end, even though Garbage and Kristin Kontrol played the exact same songs both nights, it felt as if I’d seen two totally different sets. Not necessarily “better” or “worse”, but definitely “different”. I can only say that I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see these two different shows so close together. That’s what’s so great about live music, comrades: it’s never predictable.
Kristin Kontrol (both nights)
Baby Are You In / Face 2 Face / White Street / Show Me / X-Communicate / Smoke Rings / Skin Shed
Garbage (both nights)
Supervixen / I Think I’m Paranoid / Stupid Girl / Automatic System Habit / Blood For Poppies / The Trick Is To Keep Breathing / My Lover’s Box / Sex Is Not The Enemy / Special / Beloved Freak / Even Though Our Love Is Doomed / Why Do You Love Me / Control / Blackout / Bleed Like Me / Push It / Vow / I’m Only Happy When It Rains / Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go) / Sometimes / Empty / No. 1 Crush
Garbage’s 6th album Strange Little Birds is available now on all formats. It’s easily their best album since Version 2.0. Buy it.
Kristin Kontrol’s debut album X-Communicate is available everywhere in all formats. You should buy it as well.