A trio of female-fronted acts led tonight’s outing at the Hollywood Bowl, our home away from home in Los Angeles. This, the third of the annual KCRW World Music Festival Shows of the 2017 season, featured L.A. up-and-comer Sky Ferreira, ’90s alternative legends Garbage and punk/new wave originators Blondie. While no moniker was given to the evening, celebrating it as an official night of women in music, it felt as if unofficially it was the theme celebrated in the best way possible. Each act present contributed a varied and bold approach to music, set apart from the other by generations, but equal in forward-thinking bravery and inventiveness.
L.A. native Sky Ferreira came first, playing a short six-song set. Hot off a small acting role in the recent hit film Baby Driver (she played the main character, Baby’s, mother), here Ferreira played her debut Bowl performance backed by a four-man band. Opener “24 Hours” set the tone for the set with a bright and electro-influenced sound. Not singer-songwriter, not entirely dance music, Ferreira’s approach was one blending the influence of ’80s arena pop and lively moderate rock. “Ain’t Your Right,” “Guardian” and “I Blame Myself” followed suit in the same mold, allowing for a solid backdrop for Ferreira’s smooth vocals. Ferreira audibly complained how her inner ear speakers weren’t working and how she couldn’t hear herself properly. Nevertheless, she soldiered on, doing a soothing cover of ‘Til Tuesday’s ’80s hit “Voices Carry.”
Garbage took things up a notch, opening on the brooding mystery of upcoming new song “No Horses.” Appropriately, they followed that up with the sultry, sly pop of career-starting single “Queer.” Singer Shirley Manson commanded the stage with a confident elegance, one rarely seen in modern singers. In addition to the band’s crack — original lineup of famous members/producers Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson — the live lineup of the band was augmented on bass by none other than Jane’s Addiction founding member Eric Avery. The patient, ominous tone of early career hit “#1 Crush” was greatly enhanced by his booming fretwork. Manson cooed the song’s lyrics of “I would die for you / I’ve been dying just to feel you by my side” as the song’s rolling rhythm thumped out. From last year’s newest album Strange Little Birds, “Empty” was more upbeat and rocking. Manson introduced the song remarking, “We’ve waited 22 years to come here. Thank you for coming out early.” Before beginning 2001 single “Cherry Lips,” she commented, “This is for all our LGBTQ fans in the house. You know we love you. We’ve always loved you.”
While introducing 1998 single “Special,” Manson indicated how Chrissie Hynde, the legendary lead singer of The Pretenders, was a massive influence on the formation of Garbage’s sound. When they were recording “Special,” they borrowed a lyric from The Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town.” They first checked with Hynde directly to ensure they had permission to use the lyric. Hynde responded via fax with the words, “Dear Garbage. You can use my songs. You can use my words. You can use my veritable ass.” Manson added, following that, “So on this evening of incredible women artists this one goes out to Chrissie Hynde.” From there, the band angled for the darker side of their sound. The audience in Los Angeles got a special treat as the band was joined by The Bird and the Bee’s Inara George for an amazing rendition of “Cup of Coffee.” The song’s lyrics speak of a failed romance and its last moments before a final farewell. This theme was continued on the very next song, “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” as Manson plaintively sang, “I need to understand / why we kill the things we love the most.” The set’s final songs brought everything home stupendously. The band dropped in their classic James Bond theme, “The World Is Not Enough.” Two of their biggest hits, “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains,” came next, prompting the audience on hand to manically stand, dance and sing along. “Push It” wrapped up all the various tricks and talents of the evening’s previous numbers and wrapped them up in one supremely hypnotic package.
While there is an undeniable charm and sexiness to Shirley Manson, what’s most impressive about Garbage is how they have consistently made a massive career out of defying conventions and expectations. The very choice of Manson in the first place almost 22 years ago was one aimed at using a woman’s vocals differently than the lion’s share of female voices were at the time. The band’s approach has been one lacing the simplistic conventions of pop songs with the lessons culled from a lifetime of crafting alternative and counterculture music. It has been alt when no one was sure what that meant, dark when no one would have dared go dark, and also poppy at times when it could not have been more uncool to be so.
Headliner Blondie, similarly, have made an entire career out being bold enough to go where others would not. Truthfully, this band has been blowing up expectations since before a sizable portion of the capacity crowd present tonight was even born. Starting early in the vintage mid-’70s New York City punk scene, the band bumped against the grain of convention from their beginning and then, a few short years later, embraced the burgeoning styles of disco and new wave. Two of their set’s opening songs were from their essential 1978 album Parallel Lines, “One Way or Another” and their Nerves cover “Hanging on the Telephone.” They shifted from there to a cut from their latest album, Pollinator, “Fun.” The song itself was written for album in collaboration with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. Up until about this point in the set, lead singer Debbie Harry was wearing a face-covering bee mask and a cape with block letters spelling out “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET.” Their stellar, punk-y “Call Me,” from the American Gigolo soundtrack, came next. Not to be outdone, then went their elongated, funky song, “Rapture.” While making moves from punk to disco was considered ballsy in their time, “Rapture” upped the ante considerably, taking a super early attempt and including a no-fooling rap in the song’s latter half. No joke, this was literally released as a single in 1981. Yup. Blondie was that far ahead of the game.
They took a moment to do a short cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” before shifting to new songs “Fragments” and “Long Time.” Perhaps their best song followed from there, the 1980 mega hit “Atomic.” “Atomic” excels beyond all convention by setting a solid motif in the song’s opening reverberated guitar melody, giving one solid verse and chorus before taking an extended bridge to mutate and play with the opening melody. The chorus only partly comes back to bring the song to a thrilling conclusion after the bridge. Following one more new song (“Too Much”), the band concluded with a trifecta of their most famous songs. Disco hit “Heart of Glass” brought the playful swing its known for, prompting singalongs throughout. “Union City Blue” was a look back at the vintage rock sound that they were famous for. And, finally, “Dreaming” was a lovely rumination on the value of aspirations, the constant holding onto the dream of a better tomorrow. It was a fitting finale to a lush evening of music. Yes, Harry doesn’t quite hit the highest notes the way she used to, but she is seventy-fucking-two years old. It’s remarkable how powerfully she still commands the stage even after all these years. No one would have asked for bands like these to come on the scene, but it’s hard to imagine how worse off music as a whole would be if they had never come around. Barriers are made to be broken, and it’s rare and wonderful enough to see the mastery of such progressive thinking on display.
File Photo by Sharon Alagna