Ginger Ambition

by Emma Morgan

Garbage, Portsmouth Guildhall: Madonna-style spotlight gyrations from the material Shirl.

It's about a third of the way into the set when Shirley Manson drops her bombshell. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she says, leaning into the mike like it's the partition in a confession box. Having allowed a split second of conjecture to run through the crowd, she puts us out of our misery. "I'm feeling really smiley tonight. I do apologise."

A week earlier, at their somewhat subdued Brixton Academy show, apologies might well have been in order. Suitably disarmed by the presence of a staggering 400 industry people in the audience, Garbage were almost sneaking 'Version 2.0' material into the set, only for it to pale into insignificance alongside 'Stupid Girl' et al.

Even Shirley's performance, ever the most dependable aspect of the Garbage live experience, was lacking confidence. Barely talking to the audience between songs, she walked around the stage like a caged animal with it's spirit broken, her face almost hidden by her hair and her thunder almost stolen by bassist Steve's leaping. "Brixton was awful," she later admits to Select. "I just wanted to die." But not tonight. "Tonight was amazin'!" she grins afterwards. "Would you like some champagne?"

If veer there was a town in dire need of some of Garbage's gritty glamour, it's Portsmouth. Bombed into submission during the last war, it's very particular charm is derived from it's architectural juxtapositioning: a vintage bronze statue of Queen Victoria here, the world's ugliest shopping centre (disused) there.

The gig was sold out even before the release of the second album, so the crowd promises to be strictly hardcore. In reality it's nothing of the kind. A few borderline stalkers aside (one carries with him a photo album full of shots of the band in a variety of 'arriving at venue' poses, another scratches 'Shirley I love you!' into the paintwork of the tour bus), the audience is incredibly mixed. From the predictable Goth element through just-bought-tour-T-shirt die-hards to Tiffany Mitchell's spiritual sisters, almost every imaginable type of music lover is here.

It's as if Brixton were Garbage's first live performance and a decade of solid touring had occurred in the interim. Tonight's show is textbook live euphoria. Bravely opening with mid-album track 'Dumb', the band are battered by spotlights as the crowd almost recoil from the fierceness of the sound. 'Not My Idea' placates the old school fans, but it's 'Push It' which propels the show into indelible memory.

Attitude embedded in every note, Shirley grasps the mike like it's the collective neck of the audience, sweetly hypnotising with The Beach Boys' indebted verses ("Don't worry baby") and then turning every single crowd member to stone with the ferocity of the chorus, the final ecstatic crescendo of "This is the noise that keeps me awake/My head explodes and my body aches" threatening to force flames from her head and lightening bolts from her fingertips. Id any doubt had remained about the Shirl's power in performance, it's now long gone.

Dressed in a sleeveless top, mini and wristbands, her hair scooped defiantly back from her face and often writhing on the stage in dramatic pools of spotlight, Shirl's bravura performance recalls the focus and magnetism of Madonna. A million miles from the inhibited high school outcast of her teens, Shirley seems to be revelling in her moment like never before, the living embodiment of Sylvia Plath's vengeful poetic creation, Lady Lazarus: "Out of the ashes I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air."

Thereafter, the show becomes the polar opposite of Brixton. New songs (especially 'When I Grow Up' and 'Temptation Waits') frequently outshine old. Shirley goads the evidently awe-struck fans ("You wanna be more obnoxious, like the Americans. And the Scottish," she quips.) and the cover of Bog Star's 'Thirteen', which precipitated little more than crowd conversation when aired in London, fully unveils a sentimental aspect to Garbage hinted at by 'Milk' and 'You Look So Fine'. To their credit, all four of the band are as impressed as every sweaty, exhausted member of the audience.

"I don't know how it sounded out in the crowd," says a heavily CK-One scented Butch Vig afterwards, "but I think it was the best show of the tour. London was like New York and LA, two places where we've never done a good show because so much of the audience is guest-list. Here, they were just so into it, it was cool."

Shrieking joyously when presented with a brand-new Landburgh Chelsea shirt that she promptly twirls around her head victoriously ("He used to play for Scotland, so I've got kind of a vested interest"), Shirley's post-gig bonhomie is now so overwhelming as to impair her judgement of truly important things, such as tomorrow's World Cup opener against Brazil.

"We'll be en-route to Sweden do I don't know if we'll see the match," she says, offering around the Piper-Heidseck. "But I wish them well." Do you have high hopes for them? Wrinkling her tiny nose, she shakes her head. "Nah. But you never know, with the luck of the Scots."

If it's anything like hers tonight, they'll walk it.