It looked like the end of the road for Garbage when they nearly broke up during the making of Bleed Like Me and things looked even more bleak at the end of their tour in support of that record. What looked like the end turned out to be a seven-year hiatus that ended with the release of their fantastic fifth album Not Your Kind Of People. Their triumphant return now has a victory lap in the form of their first live DVD, One Mile High Live.
I know I have an obsession with setlists, maybe an unhealthy one, but the only way one of my favorite bands could botch a release like this is not knowing their best songs or stubbornly refusing to play them. That doesn't happen on Mile High. Fanboys like me will always have at least one more song we wish they'd play but everything you'd expect is present and the new songs -- which I love -- are balanced against the hits.
With the setlist intact, the remaining questions are how would the band sound live after all this time away and how can a band whose sound is so reliant on studio wizardry recreate that music onstage at all? The answer to the first question is tight, powerful, and as great as you could hope. The answer to the second is by bringing pieces of the studio with them and unleashing the unparalleled charisma of frontwoman extraordinaire Shirley Manson on a crowd of adoring fans.
Garbage understands their music isn't organic but Manson's multi-faceted persona as lyricist and performer provides the authenticity that gives the music resonance. They bring a piece of the studio to the stage with them in the form of electronic beats and backing vocal tracks as well as occasional processing and distortion on Manson's voice.
Because Garbage has embraced the "studio-as-instrument" approach to their music, they've never seemed reliant on guitar for their sound but Marker and Erikson's ragged riffs are more prominent on stage, allowing us to hear the sound behind the sound. These elements were always there but live they are moved further front. Even on a classic like the beat-heavy "Queer," we hear razor-riffs and even some slinky R&B fills.
The new songs fit well among the favorites -- check out the interplay between Manson and drummer Butch Vig on "Battle in Me" -- but the hits are the highlights, in particular "#1 Crush," arguably the band's best song. It's unfathomable to me this was relegated to a B-side rather than making their monster self-titled debut and I contend they'd have easily sold another million copies if they'd included it. It became instead a hit when remixed for the reasonably vapid Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Romeo + Juliet. Those of us who are Garbage obsessives know the B-side version was more reflective of the dark undertones of obsession in the lyrics as opposed to the brighter remix. The live version marries both of those but plays more to the original, introduced by a masterful, menacing bass intro from Eric Avery. It's still fucking blinding and has lost none of its impact.
"#1 Crush" isn't the only song to have its arrangement altered for the stage. "Only Happy When It Rains" opens as a ballad with a mournful synth orchestra beneath Manson's vocal that slowly builds to the more familiar anthemic rocker. "The Trick Is To Keep Breathing" is faithful to the original but the live version might actually surpass it with drops of liquid guitar in the outro.
They close the show with "Vow," which might still be my favorite song from their eponymous debut. The jagged, swirling guitars bounce off one another just as they did on record but the song closes with a cacophony of racket, rage, and rock; it's a perfect ending for a magnificent show.
One Mile High Live is a story of four people happy to be making music together once again and a love letter from them to the devoted, patient fans. Here is hoping hints in recent interviews prove true, that this is only the beginning of their next chapter together.