Garbage, FIONA APPLE Are Simply Smashing
L.A. @ Universal Amphitheater
LA Times    Dec '96

by Sara Scribner

A confusing mixed bag of acts, lumped together as the "women's night program," kicked off KROQ's seventh annual "Almost Acoustic Christmas" concerts at the Universal Amphitheater Friday.   Performer Sarah McLachlan summed it up as "a girlie explosion."

Despite her wonderful pipes, McLachlan's presence on Friday's bill--a benefit for R.A.I.N.N., Tori Amos' rape crisis center, and for Haven House, a shelter in Pasadena for battered women--bespoke one puzzling aspect of the alternative radio station's showcase: The Canadian singer-songwriter's music doesn't exactly scream "alternative."

Between Amos' practically possessed version of "Cornflake Girl" and Garbage's riveting "Stupid Girl," Sheryl Crow's lackluster "If It Makes You Happy" and Jewel's folksy "Who Will Save Your Soul," it was clear that the sole trait these artists share is gender.

But the thought didn't entirely sap a feeling of unity, and it didn't detract from the two powerhouse performances.  Garbage, a rock act with a sample-heavy sound, assured the crowd that it can tear a house down with musicality and true grit.  And newcomer Fiona Apple warmed the night with honesty and high style.

Garbage's sole female (in a quartet that includes legendary producer Butch Vig) is exotic singer Shirley Manson, who is both soulful and punkish.  Past Garbage shows have been unsteady, reveling in an array of high-tech gear but failing to seduce.   Friday, Garbage exploded into an amazing live act: hot-wired and edgy and in sync with its moody, high-flown sound and lyrical swipes at hypocrisy.

Indeed, the boys in the band felt like an added bonus as Manson blossomed into a hypnotic performer, roving the stage in a "Playgirl" tank top and tennis shoes and delivering karate chops like a hopped-up Miss Emma Peel.

Unlike most of the acts, Garbage even ventured tentatively into acoustic territory with a soft yet not declawed version of Vic Chesnutt's "Supernatural." Manson also delivered some food for thought: "1996 has been an amazing year for women," she told the crowd.  "But I hope it's not a 'phenomenon.'   And I hope that next year, we're in with the boys."

Earlier, Apple had moved the audience with steely strength and vulnerability.  Perched at the piano, she delivered a song from her debut album, "Tidal," before shocking the crowd with her tremulous confession: "You guys, I am so nervous right now."  If she hadn't said anything, nobody would've known.

As the 19-year-old New Yorker sang with deep apparent knowledge and maturity and spun highly literate lyrics about broken promises and failed relationships, her sultry, jazzy voice boiled under with a powerful sensuality, hinting of such greats as Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

The rest of the sets were tame, yet competent.  Tracy Bonham was dynamic but never too risky, even when she jumped on her violin and smashed it into splinters after singing "Mother Mother."  Jewel made the transformation from rough-edged coffeehouse crooner to slick performer, delivering a new, country-steeped hoe-down, but only a rousing, lighthearted display of her yodeling skills won over the crowd.  And the Cardigans, a Swedish jazz-pop-lounge band, felt icy, a far cry from the delicious quirkiness of their studio sound.

Closing the show with a joyful set, Natalie Merchant gathered a motley crew of talented musicians, including backing vocalist N'Dea Davenport, knockout singer for the Brand New Heavies.

Merchant, the former leader of 10,000 Maniacs, delivers more mainstream pop than KROQ fare these days.  Still, she rallied the audience, even hauling out Poe, Bonham and McLachlan for a gospel-tinged Christmas carol finale.  fin