A favourite destination of mine in Cape Town is Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Open spaces, immaculately maintained natural vegetation and a tree top walkway providing incredible views over the city, all at the base of one of the world’s most famous mountains; a perfect place for education and energising one’s soul. Concerts are also held there in the summer months resulting in plenty of childhood memories of picnic suppers on rolling green slopes while enjoying music or singing seasonal carols.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels while standing in a mile long line outside the entrance to Kew Gardens recently. In all my years in London I had never visited Kew since it always seemed out of the way, and to be honest I never really thought about it. Queuing to get in after closing time to attend a gig seemed an unusual introduction to British horticulture.
The grounds were absolutely stunning; despite there being no mountain backdrop along the path we were herded down to get to the stage area, we did pass the impressively massive greenhouse and historic palace across the water. Sculptures also decorated the pristine surroundings making it feel like a natural museum. Not the traditional location for alternative fans streaming in to see post-grunge legends, Garbage.
Kew the Music is a day festival I’d not previously heard of. I had prepared for an experience like All Points East in Victoria Park; imagining being a mile away from the stage, separated from singer Shirley Manson by thousands of sweaty bodies and long queues for both refreshment and relief culminating in many hours on my ultimately aching feet. Seeing others waiting in line with full picnics packed, my friend and I had purchased our drinks in advance – eliminating at least the bar queue portion of our evening.
Approaching the stage area there was ample room, with groups stretched out over blankets and reclining in camping chairs. Moving closer to the stage we saw a barrier indicating no chairs could be used from that point forward, with hundreds more people all still picnicking but on ground level. There was a further smaller area in front of the stage sectioned off as standing room only, and we found a little spot to sit right behind this barrier. It felt like quite a ‘grown-up’ event, but never had I thought I’d get so close to the front which made my excitement really fizz.
I essentially ignored the MC who came across quite awkward, perhaps a bit out of his depth. He seemed like he’d be more comfortable commentating at Wimbledon than trying to hype up a rock crowd. The first act set a high bar; Du Blond soon had the crowd’s attention. The band is actually the work of Newcastle native Beth Jeans Houghton, an amazingly multi-talented individual who is in charge of every aspect of her work, not only writing and instrumentation but also production, album artwork and directing her own videos. Her latest album is called Lung Bread for Daddy and I recommend it for anyone who enjoys a bluesy, psychedelic, 60’s garage flavour.
The second band on the bill drew quite a few fans forward into the standing area. Sleeper, back on the road after many years of ‘hibernation’, had much of the crowd on their feet. I remember them reaching a mediocre level of recognition in South Africa, but clearly they were much bigger at home in the UK. I think location during the Britpop years was important to be able to fully appreciate them. The song I do remember them for was their cover of Blondie’s “Atomic” which appeared on the Trainspotting soundtrack. I was very happy they played this and did get up and have a little dance, but must admit I found the rest of their set a bit lack lustre. This says more about my own enthusiasm though, since I was clearly in the minority.
As some of the crowd returned to their picnics after their set I wanted to get nearer. We picked up our emptying drinks bag and moved quite close to the stage, which didn’t seem real. Since their breakout self-titled album in 1995, Garbage’s distorted pop sound, along with Manson’s powerful and subversive vocals, had provided a voice to my teen anger, their tracks still making their way onto current playlists.
I remember how disappointed I had been to miss their tour to South Africa with Placebo in 1999. All these years later I was about to cross both bands off my bucket list after seeing Placebo at Meltdown last summer. Opening with relatively newer tune “Control”, Garbage maintained a perfect energy level for an incredible show. Manson was fierce; her small frame dominated the stage without being too intimidating. Clad in sparkly white and silver she stood out against the rest of the band in black.
I was still feeling disbelief as the hits continued: “#1 Crush”, “Stupid Girl”, “Dumb”, “I Think I’m Paranoid” and “Only Happy When It Rains”. Jamming along to “Wicked Ways” it felt a treat to hear the band insert some of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”, an excellent surprise. “Special” is a track that has remained close to me through the years, and as Manson moved over to our side of the stage during the first verse, singing it back to her gave my inner 17 year old a real sense of validation.
As the set drew to a close I felt almost certain of an encore. Mentioning to another friend that I was seeing Garbage, his request was to record part of a song that was special to both of us which they had not yet played. As the band re-emerged I got my camera ready and felt emotional as they belted out favourite “When I Grow Up”. I was glad to grant my friend his wish but also knew this moment was unforgettable for adult me as well as younger more vulnerable me.
The mood of the whole evening was buoyant. Nobody seemed drunk and out of control, there wasn’t an uncomfortable crush among the crowd and a rambunctious group near us were so good natured their excitement became infectious. Watching the sky dramatically change as the sun set gave the gig an ethereal feel, stirring up a little extra magic off stage.
Garbage played brilliantly, their older hits still sounded dangerous and relevant, signalling their decade’s long career nowhere near over. The release of standalone single Destroying Angels this year and a new Roxy Music inspired album in the works gives fans some more excitement to look forward to. I can’t wait.
Post script: As we left my friend joked we should have got tickets to see the next day’s headliner, Rick Astley. While the beautiful surroundings and relaxed picnic atmosphere did mildly tempt a return, I wasn’t ‘giving up’ on the thought that we wouldn’t be able to top the evening we just had.