See that smile to the right there? Well that's what the tUnE-Yards show (damn that's hard to type) on Thursday at The Red Palace was all about. The absolute exuberance and joyfulness of tUne-YarDs alter-ego, Merrill Garbus is hinted at on her butt-shaking, brain-breaking 2011 album whokill, but unleashed on stage it was as infectious as it was endearing.
Garbus isn't making what you would call easy music these days. Her songs are full of crashing conflicting chords laid down over polyrhythmic beats that slip in and out of the music all the while her voice perfoming acrobatics rarely attempted in the pop music sphere, much less pulled off. whokill, her latest album, is a hard, at times brain-breakingly genius record that takes more than a few listens to quite get, and even then it takes a few more before you become completely at ease with it. But once it opens up even some of its secrets to you, it's the most rewarding album that you'll hear all year. So how does it play live?
In an equally brain-breaking fashion, Garbus’s music seems like it was made for stage. She's said in interviews that it's all about practice, practice, practice, and there can be little doubt after Thursday night that she isn’t kidding. Starting with a drum kick, a yodel or even just a grunt, she slowly builds these songs from the ground up, looping her parts over and over, until the song that she has begun slowly becomes recognizable from out of the din. Looping yourself and/or your instruments to build a song isn't anything new (see Andrew Bird...or even further back, Keller Williams) but Garbus’s ability to create a whole band of pseudo Garbus’s (Garbi?) never comes off as showy, or even clever. It just seems like this is the way it has to be.
Being able to anticipate every single part of a song that isn't necessarily based on a single repeating beat or hook and then being able to execute those parts so that they don't sound like their loops is something I quite literally can' really wrap my head around. I know what Garbus is doing. I'm watching her do it in front of me, but by the time it all comes together it makes no sense how she got there. It's something that should be frustrating, but instead has the effect of someone setting off an awesome bomb in your head that hits every single receptor and synapse at once.
And then there’s that voice.
Snarling, cooing, belting and R&B’ing all at once…if there were nothing else that Merrill Garbus could do with her talents, she’d do just fine blowing away just about every modern singer I can think of. As her face contorted into masks of fear, pain and joy, you can see in every note she sings or weird sound she creates, that her voice isn’t just coming out of her, it IS her. Whether it the weird looped of “es-so” that surprised even her fellow band mates, or the straight up R&B charm of “doorstep”, Garbus seems to be able to achieve anything with her voice, and if I’m being honest it’s something I can’t get enough of. I love all the pieces and parts she throws into her songs vocally, but when those are stripped away on songs like “doorstep” or she actually just rises above them on tracks like “bizness” and the set closing “my country” her voice filled the room with what could only be described as pure Merrill. It was joyful in its perfection and it fed the crowds jubilance the entire night.
And speaking of the crowd; the audience was in rare form, with a kind of supportive heckling going on pretty much throughout the show. Early on, Garbus engaged/captured the crowd by having everyone sing one of her harmonies along with her. It's a cheap trick, sure, but it works, and from that point on grins abounded throughout the tiny room. Working through most of whokill and taking a few detours into her previous album BiRd-BrAiNs, the group (she brought 2 sax players and a bass player with her) kept the crowd laughing, singing along and even pogoing at times, for the duration of the close to 90 minute set. Maybe everyone in the room had been beaten into a form of giddy submission by Garbus's tricks, or maybe everyone had just the right amount of beer buzz going , but the show in its entirety was more fun that it any right to be.
So the question I pose to you now is not so much should you go see tUne-YarDs as soon as you possibly can, but why haven’t you seen Garbus and friends yet? Believe the hype folks. The creator of what will likely be the best album of the year unsurprisingly puts on one of the best shows I’ve seen in DC this year (sorry Besnard Lakes). If you have half a brain in your head, you absolutely owe it to yourself to let Merrill Garbus turn it into a gooey giddy puddle some night soon.
Check out this fan shot performance of "bizness" from Thursday night!
Here's Paul's thoughts on Buke Gass, the excellent opener for TuNe-YarDs.
So, before Tuneyards this chick comes out on stage with what appears to be an oversized ukelele and a shy lookingbfellow sits beside her with a guitar across his lap. The only other instruments in sight are a kick drum and toebourine. I roll my eyes and turn to Kevin, saying "this is about to be twee as shit..." And I was right...for about 60 seconds. At that point Buke (or was it Gass) started assaulting her uke like it was a vintage fender...and didn't let up for the remainder of the set. Gass (or was it Buke) kept the beat and moved the songs along. Who knew that such a wall of sound could be generated from such odd an limited sources...and her voice carried above it all. I'm not sure I loved every minute of it but I was certainly never bored and I was still thinking about moments from that set even as I was trying to collect pieces of my exploded skull after Tuneyards finished up. And that my friend is saying something.