“Tonight I have nothing to say; usually this doesn’t happen… You’re in luck, Berlin!” exclaims Shirley Manson with a smile, the crowd laughing, cheering her on to continue chatting. The reality is, even after 20 years since Garbage’s seminal Version 2.0 came out, it appears as though she’s never had as much to say as she does now. In a new era of female empowerment and women taking the stage with less unease than before, the 52-year-old Scottish powerhouse frontperson today comes off as a “protospokeswoman”, a harbinger of sorts, the first of her kind – the kind of a lady completely in control, unafraid to “hurt and heal”, be “paranoid”, or use words like “cum” in her lyrics without asking permission. Certainly, Manson is not the first “strong and independent” woman in the music industry, but she is the probably the first mainstream musician to sing: “I call all the shots, I hold all the cards, and you feel emasculated.” Of course, consider this if you want to perceive the Garbage of today from a political perspective.
Despite Manson inadvertently reiterating her position as a willful feminist icon, there is still plenty of offbeat humor in Garbage’s music, and it’s as delightful as ever to see that Manson never accepts the role of an evangelist or takes herself too seriously. “I’m a bonfire, I’m a vampire,” she sneers playfully in front of a packed Huxley’s, one of Berlin’s many historically intriguing venues, and the party is on.
Huxley’s Neue Welt (New World, of course) is a particularly punk concert venue in the lively East Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln. Able to host only up to around 1,000, its long and dark, homogenous concrete corridors call to mind Eastern-European architecture of the mid to late 20th century. The main hall, with walls adorned in kitsch plaster golden ornaments, is expansive and comfortable, with two levels separated by a staircase. As is customary in Berlin, there are messages of peace and absurd garnishes; a black flag reading “pay Nazis no mind” hangs from the top level, over an improvised stand named “Dodo beach record store”. A mix of people predominantly over 35 chats with plenty of beer, waiting for (likely) their teenage idols. It has been 20 years since Garbage’s Version 2.0 came out and for this anniversary tour we are all considerably older, but the band seems as though they haven’t aged a day.
The concert given the intimacy of a small venue was sold out for some time, but the kindness and vigilance of the promotion team from Loft Music grant me access on a very short notice. At 9:00 pm sharp the space around the small stage, modestly decorated with nothing but four luminescent pols at each corner, turns deep red, thick smoke obfuscating Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Duke Erikson, and Manson herself. When their silhouettes become discernible amid the smoke, the effect is already achieved — it appears as if they are materializing from another dimension, a goth sci-fi production of sorts (the band does at times refer to their music as “sci-fi pop”, and science fiction themes are present in some of their videos as well). Tonight, Manson is wearing all black, a short bodysuit and fishnets; her bright red hair pulled up in ponytails.
Over the course of 90 particularly intense minutes, the band sounds as good as ever, playing all 12 songs from the album, along with nine B-sides and covers, with “Cherry Lips” off Beautiful Garbage being the only song from a different album. The band also played one new tune, “No Horses”, which Manson dedicated to Donald Trump and “the apocalypse that will come from our disregard for the environment and focus on profits and money”. “All the best things in life have nothing to do with money!” shouts Manson to an approving crowd. Despite verbal and musical stabs at the current U.S. President becoming all but a rule for most rock bands today, one can hardly call this a novel concept. In a way, we should be thankful that rock bands are not giving up on politicized commentary — unfortunately for the civilization, there is always plenty to denote there.
The songs themselves are a riot, though. Garbage has always been popular predominantly because of their truly eclectic, hard-to-place sound, and Version 2.0 is no exception. In their tunes one can hear dozens of other major bands from the ’90s, including but not limited to Sneaker Pimps, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, the Prodigy; even Crystal Method come to mind at times. The heavy guitar drapery, while dominant in the “shoegazing” melodic skeleton, meshes seamlessly with Manson’s powerful contralto. While most other voices would be buried underneath the weight of distortions and guitar effects, Manson is loud, clear and commanding, complementing Steve Marker’s guitar with her vocals, making for an almost unified sound; a peculiar but nevertheless astonishing treat for a listener. “Temptations Waits” and “Special” are singalong-bait, while “The World Is Not Enough” soars because of Manson’s authoritative crescendo. About one third in, Manson addresses the crowd for the first time to announce the B-side “Get Busy With the Fizzy”: “This is the only party song we’ve ever written; we were drunk in a bar when we were called to make a song, we went straight into the studio and this is what we produced!”
Still, not everything is fun and games: the latter half of the set features several power ballads about relationships on the verge of being broken, narrated from the perspective of a woman uncertain of what to do. “Sleep Together” and “Soldier Through This”, the songs in question, offer disparate perspectives but also remind us that Manson’s at her best when she “humanizes” her stories through vulnerability and ambivalence. “Push It” and “When I Grow Up” revert the mood to more caustic critique of one’s relationship with herself and other people, and “You Look So Fine” is made better with an infinitely compelling all-minor-key rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”; hopefully Garbage records their own version, as Manson has frequently cited Stevie Nicks as an influence. While the concert itself more than delivered, it has to be noted that some of Garbage’s most prominent singles from other releases were sorely missed, especially “Queer” and “Milk”. A more balanced retrospective of the bands entire career would have made for an even more immersive listening experience.
At the very end, Manson proposed a toast to “all the LGBTQ+ fans, all the weirdos who always felt like they didn’t really belong anywhere, who were always on the fringes”; it is a poignant moment and everyone cheers. Berlin is primarily a city of tolerance and love and a place where Garbage can truly feel like home. “Thank you for loving weirdos like us,” said Manson while sipping on her drink, right before signing off with “Cherry Lips”. A quarter of a century has passed since Garbage first formed in Madison, Wisconsin; now acts like Metallica honor Garbage’s work by covering “Stupid Girl” when they perform in Wisconsin. Such is the impact that this band has made on rock music’s history. Hopefully, they finish the announced seventh studio album soon and return to the spotlight to educate a whole new generation of “weirdos”.