Reviewing garbage

Last updated 08:52 22/02/2013

You go to shows. Review them. You take them in. You do your best to engage with the show - and then to respond to the show; to offer an informed opinion.

It's a bit of a mug's game really, innit? Damned if you do/damned because you do...

I've reviewed some garbage in my time. I've been writing gig reviews for a few years now - I started off filing some reviews for Victoria University's Salient magazine and the local weekly rag, Capital Times. From there it was to the Evening Post - which amalgamated with The Dominion, making The Dominion Post. I've been reviewing gigs for The Dominion Post for just over a decade.

And I've told you this before, but here's the deal - you go where you are told. There are some nice bonuses, it's been an incredible treat to see shows by bands I love that have also knocked it out of the park (Wilco) and as someone interested in music - you could use the term obsessed if you like, many have - I've also seen shows by artists I was not at all interested in, but they also knocked it out of the park. I always use Nana Mouskouri as the example. She was great. And I did not expect that. It ends up being more rewarding than being let down by a hero (Bob Dylan), baffled by hype (Them Crooked Vultures), bored by interminable, shapeless jamming (there was a triple bill of that on Wednesday night with the guitarists from America, Bachman-Turner and Pat Benatar) or ruined due to the sound/sound-mix/venue (almost any live hip-hop show).

You run the risk also - in this process of demystifying, analysing, critiquing - of ruining your own favourites; thinking too hard, or not hard enough, struggling to find new adjectives and to meet old deadlines.

But you cannot get away with playing the poor-me card. You got free tickets! (There is, let me try to tell you, no such thing as free.)

On Tuesday night I reviewed Garbage. It was actually incredible seeing the fan-support, right from the get-go. And the band nailed it, they played well, Shirley Manson was in decent shape vocally and she had more presence than when I last saw the band (back in 1995, she was all nervous steps, learning to be a performer). The playing was correct - in that the musicians played their tunes as they were supposed to sound; they gave shape to them, were faithful to them, the songs were faithful renditions for the audience.

I followed Garbage's career - I liked the first two albums at the time (I was a paying customer when I attended their first NZ show). I gave up on them after a while. I forgot about the band - and I thought most people did. Then, at this reunion/rebirth show it was noticeable, instantly, that many fans (a decent enough audience; I thought in the lead-up the gig might be cancelled) still love this band.

But we've all seen what happens when a gushing fan reviews a show - words like "genius" are thrown about with reckless abandon.

So I copped it for my review - because I don't like Garbage's songs; they sounded excruciating to me,even through the faithful precision playing (maybe because of that, even?). And I am not apologising to fans for not liking the songs - nor do I expect a fan to come round to my way of thinking.

The dumbest comment that gets made about reviews is the person so sure they have the answer; the one who blurts out that music is subjective. Yes, you "genius", so then is reviewing music. Calls for an objective review are futile - an objective review of Garbage from Tuesday night would read thus:

The band members walked on to the stage and opened the show by playing a song. After audience applause they played another song in a similar tempo with a similar feel. Then another. Then the lead singer, a woman named Shirley Manson, spoke to the audience. She conveyed a joy at being back in New Zealand. She spoke on behalf of the band saying they were thrilled to be in Wellington. And then they played another song. And another. And another...

Actually, looking at it - maybe I should have filed that. It's (also) a fair reflection.

But I didn't. I filed my subjective take on the band's performance - taking into account the level of audience enthusiasm, accounting for the fact that the band (still) sounded consistent with the trademark Garbage sound; that is to say the band sounded like Garbage. (It is the songs that I thought sounded like garbage. So I said that also.)

The next night I saw Pat Benatar as part of a meandering triple bill. The review is in today's Dominion Post and online and there will be more comments telling me that I missed the point. Maybe some people will agree with my take on events.

There were more shows this week reviewed by me - and there'll be more next. Then a break. Then more. Then more. Then another break. Then some more.

It's a job. It's something I do for money, a part of earning a living. And I realise that it seems like the ultimate privilege - but I should point out that the pay is not great; it's not my main job. I do it because I do enjoy the work; I'm open to having an interesting - or challenging - experience every time I go out. With social media now, and my photo on this blog, I'm also open - more than ever before - to having challenges from audience members.

I want to take this moment to apologise to one person at the Garbage concert. Caitlin wrote a comment at the end of the online version of my review.

Caitlin's comment calls me a "buzzkill". Caitlin could see me using my phone to check Facebook and this was off-putting. Caitlin could tell that I was not enjoying the concert. Caitlin enjoyed the concert a lot more after I left.

I replied telling Caitlin that I was very much aware I was being a buzzkill - and clarified that when I "left" I actually moved to the back of the venue. It wasn't fair me being up the front at something I was not really enjoying. People were standing - and were choosing their own spaces, not really worrying about seats. So I moved to the back to take a seat where I could still see and hear (and occasionally check Facebook).

Caitlin's concert experience was ruined by me - in part. And I'm sorry for that. I don't try to ruin people's gig-going experience - certainly not at the time. I can't stop people from caring about reviews afterwards; if a review bugs their happiness that's as much their fault as mine, I reckon.

But I just wanted to say that I was sorry. Sincerely. It's an odd thing writing back to people - particularly via blog/review-comments. As the writer I'm often told I'm being defensive and/or passive-aggressive (as will be the case today with this post, I'm sure). And, usually, I don't reply to comments on reviews. The way I've always seen it is that the review is me having my say, the comments function that now applies (a speedier, updated version of the old Letter to the Editor) is the reader's chance to have their say. Round and round in circles we could go...

But last week I blogged about how talking can ruin gigs.

And it seems my not being into Garbage was a way of ruining the gig; it was palpable. Apparently.

So, for what it's worth Caitlin, I am sorry. I'm glad you got to see a band you care about and that you (eventually) were able to enjoy it.

I am so very lucky that I often get to have that experience - and I'm forever grateful that I have seen some of my favourite acts in the world, in some cases more than once. And I've been turned on to so much music through reviewing and regular gig-going as a fan of music.

I've also sat through plenty of garbage. Because it's my job. Or part of my job. A professional hobby if you like. One I take very seriously, even when I'm scanning Facebook.

My review of Garbage tried to point out the connection between band and fans - and I gave my opinion about the songs.

When I was at the concert, reviewing it/viewing it, I was aware that I needed to move. That I wasn't going to be won over because the songs don't do it for me. So I moved to the back, sat out another match in this mug's game. 

I'm sorry Caitlin.

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