For a band whose defining moments lay decades behind them, Garbage has largely avoided the nostalgia-circuit pandering of their reunited contemporaries atop the late '90s charts. While the Roseland Theater may represent a sizeable step down from the arenas filled during the quartet's Clinton-era peak, Sunday evening's sold-out throng also felt mercifully light on middle-aged memory-hunters distractedly waiting out the hits. Beyond the inevitable thickets of West Side tech-bros ready to phone-capture every familiar act passing through town, last night's crowd seemed almost eerily reminiscent of the band themselves at that '94 moment when Nevermind producer Butch Vig first brought Scottish goth-pop chanteuse Shirley Manson aboard his new garage-dance project—a sea of balding normcore professionals beside pretty young things of regal diffidence and hair colors not found in nature.
Weirdly, considering the band's rarefied legacy as the bridge between the last days of grunge and our electronica-dappled future, no one else has ever sounded remotely like Garbage. As a result, though resolutely fixed upon a bygone sonic checkpoint, they somehow don't seem dated, and however frustrating the artists' reluctance to move beyond a sonic blueprint essentially perfected upon arrival, cuts from latest release Strange Little Birds fit seamlessly between the greatest hits. Casual fans couldn't have expected so many past FM staples to ring familiar nor—given the recordings' densely-layered flourishes of tape-op delirium—how unabashedly rawk they'd seem when performed live. Owing, perhaps, to the famously-fastidious production techniques that effectively forced a lengthy hiatus between each album, Garbage has mastered that hardest trick for veteran groups: maintaining the lockstep cohesion of continuous interplay without ever betraying the time-worn weariness of a millionth run through the songbook.
For a pair of studio boffins aged 57 and 65, the more overt rock'n'roll theatrics of guitarist Steve Marker and utility instrumentalist Duke Erikson read as reflexive and instinctual as their thunderous riffs are polished (61-year-old Vig, sidelined earlier this tour with bout of acute sinusitis, keeps a steady presence behind the drums). Manson, at 50, was nothing less than a revelation. Powers undimmed, the Edinburgh expat can still shatter the rafters with a weaponized brittleness or glide breathless along a tempered fragility, and slightly rougher vocal textures only accentuate the hint of a growl long lurking behind serrated anthems of keening regret. While every city likes to imagine its venues hold some special resonance for touring icons, her exhaustive, spellbinding, continuously electric performance felt far more than routine. And, midway through the approximately 90-minute set, she confirmed as much.
"It's not often you get to share a room with someone that's helped save your life," Manson intoned. A long pause followed as, suspense building, onlookers glanced helplessly about. Thomas Lauderdale? Vera Katz? Damian Lillard? You? Me? Twas, actually, Wild author Cheryl Strayed. Manson credited the local author's Tiny Beautiful Things—a collection of essays soon to be adapted by HBO for a PDX-based series—as an invaluable touchstone during a difficult period following the death of her mother.
It was an oddly affecting moment. Platinum acts dependent upon hook-laden, profoundly-manipulated, fun-sized soundscapes aren't ordinarily founts of emotional intimacy. More to the point, for all her lyrical self-laceration, the Garbage frontwoman always projected a cheeky distance commensurate with her bandmates' artisanal gloss, but more than just Manson's timbre has deepened.
Although initial complaints about Garbage as calculated pop construct soon dissipated—Manson too plainly bled through each album—the evident creative disconnect separating the band's unchallenged head and undeniable heart still never quite fit how we like to think about rock groups. Hard to romanticize a singular romantic vision when the singer-songwriter's left to tend her neuroses half a world away from the Wisconsite producers' endless tinkering. No longer, though. However artificial their origins, whatever their current process may entail, the music of Garbage now seems indistinguishable from the spirit of Shirley Manson.
At every moment, she commanded the stage—stalking petulantly away from the mic, gushing liquid before applause, plopping down for a bout of "just-we-girls" candor, physically wringing every ounce of rage and despair from songs of seduction. By the show's triumphant close, she was effortlessly directing crowd traffic toward choral response as huge swaths of the roiling faithful shouted along the refrain to their signature hit in cascading tandem. Inspirational memoirists aside, Portland may hold little claim for Garbage. But can you blame local audiences for investing "Only Happy When It Rains" with an intensely personal significance?
All photos by Colin McLaughlin.