The double-bill of 1970s punk pioneer Blondie with 1990s alternative-rock juggernaut Garbage on a tour this summer is meant to be a complementary pairing, and it works well in that regard. Both groups clearly have a great deal of respect for each other, and Garbage singer Shirley Manson spoke effusively about her appreciation for Blondie singer Debbie Harry’s influence on countless female rock singers who arose in her wake. “This is an iconic band that changed things for everybody,” she gushed with clear sincerity during Friday’s concert at ACL Live.
Despite the goodwill between the two acts, it was almost impossible not to compare and contrast them in this back-to-back setting. And while Blondie may indeed have had the more storied career — a larger contingent of average Americans could name or sing a handful of Blondie’s biggest hits than Garbage’s — it was hard not to come away from the evening more impressed by the blitzkrieg performance of Manson and her bandmates.
Part of that is simply the difference in their ages/eras. Manson will turn 51 later this month, while Harry is 72. As a band, Blondie still rocks out with loud and wild abandon: Younger additions bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen supplement the old-guard core of Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke. As a vocalist, Harry still effortlessly reaches the high notes, and she exudes cool with her flair for offbeat fashion: high platform shoes, a cape adorned with a stinging environmental message, a bug-eyed mask that she wore for the first couple of numbers.
RELATED: Our 2011 interview with Blondie co-founder Chris Stein
In terms of sheer energy, though, Manson was the performer who made this night special. Singers for young indie-rock bands in their 20s could learn a lot from how much this woman puts into her performance at 50. As the group powered through hits such as “Stupid Girl” and “#1 Crush” as well as a few songs from last year’s “Strange Little Birds” album, Manson stalked the stage from left to right, playing not only to the fully engaged standing-room floor crowd but also to those up high in the rafters at the nearly sold-out show.
Behind her, a solid wall of classic 1990s-style punk-influenced rock backed up her every word and move. Given how loud Garbage played, it was impressive just how clear and clean everything sounded. That’s a tribute to their crew, but it also probably has something to do with the talents of their drummer, the legendary studio ace Butch Vig. You may remember him for producing the greatest album ever to come out of the Seattle area. I’m talking about the Young Fresh Fellows’ “Electric Bird Digest,” of course. (Oh, he also did that Nirvana “Nevermind” record too.)
RELATED: Nirvana’s “Nevermind” photo outtakes at Austin’s Modern Rocks gallery
Manson saved her most physically draining performance for the group’s finale, a flaming-hot rendition of Garbage’s single ” Vow.” Twisting and grinding around the microphone stand, she sank to the stage floor and gradually rose back up again as she wove a few lines from Marianne Faithfull’s steamy “Why’d Ya Do It” into the final moments. As each member waved joyfully to the crowd upon departing, it was clear Garbage has been fully enjoying this return to the spotlight. (The band also has drawn attention this summer with a new biography, “This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake,” by former Austin journalist Jason Cohen.)
In comparison, Blondie’s performance felt more workmanlike and by-the-numbers. Mixing the hits everyone wanted to hear — “One Way or Another,” “Call Me,” “Heart of Glass” — with tracks such as “Gravity” and “Fragments” from the just-released “Pollinator” album, they mostly pleased the crowd but didn’t quite set the place afire. The 1981 proto-rap chart-topper “Rapture” was a mid-set highlight, drawn out even longer than its six-minute recorded version with extended jams from Stein and Kessler.
A couple of choice covers helped spice things up. Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” had everyone singing along to the “Everybody must get stoned” chorus when the house lights illuminated the whole crowd. And a punk-anthem adaptation of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” smash “My Heart Will Go On” was a brilliant encore opener, in part because it revealed some surprising melodic similarities with the band’s own “Dreaming,” which closed the show a few minutes later (after a reggae-tinged version of “The Tide Is High” in between).
Deap Vally, the Los Angeles duo of guitarist Lindsey Troy and drummer Julie Edwards, played a short opening set for those who arrived in time for the show’s early 7 p.m. start. (Full disclosure: I didn’t make it there in time to hear them.) They stuck around to greet fans in the venue’s breezy outdoor concourse between the Garbage and Blondie sets, though, and then went downstairs to headline an after-show party at ACL’s smaller 3Ten venue.