Thursday, November 10, 2011

Concert Review - tUnE-yArDs at Lincoln Hall, November 9, 2011

If you've seen Merrill Garbus live then you already know what I'm talking about. The woman is a presence, a force to be reckoned with onstage who commands your attention and delivers a performance that is equal parts intimate charm and shock and awe. In a musical landscape saturated with critically-acclaimed touring acts and comeback tours to beat the band, she creates a unique live experience that feels miles away from and above anything else out there.

I knew all this coming into tonight's show, having already seen Garbus fronting tUnE-yArDs during a glorious, sun-dappled Friday afternoon set at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. It was curiously placed on a side stage, which was packed to the gills by 4PM on a workday and everyone there knew from the first song that it would be a festival highlight. What remained to be seen for me, however, was how that experience would translate to a small club like Lincoln Hall.

I had to watch the first four songs of openers Pat Jordache on TV from the bar before moving into the main room due my late arrival. I was intrigued by what I'd heard from the bar and when I moved onto the floor, I wasn't disappointed. Well, not exactly. 

I recently read a New York Magazine article that asked "Is Indie The New Adult Contemporary?". While Pat Jordache wasn't exactly "adult contemporary", they were an example of the pleasant and good, but not quite great indie band. The band consisted of two drummers, a guitarist and a bassist/keyboardist and, like so many men of my generation, these guys clearly had no lack of fondness for the 80's. The songs owed a heavy influence to Paul Simon's Graceland period with a little Peter Gabriel and maybe even some Psychedelic Furs thrown in. Everything sounded good, with simple polyrhythms and energetic bass creating a pleasing background for atmospheric, subtle guitar play that never failed to entertain but never took off enough to excite. As I waited for tUnE-yArDs' set to begin it struck me that Pat Jordache did a great job whetting my appetite for the headliners. They used the similar elements as their tourmates (there was even some basic looping) and they were excellent musicians, but they lacked the spark of inspiration that made tUnE-yArDs so electric.

Did I say "electric"? Because I meant ELECTRIC. As soon as she took the stage, Merrill elicited a chorus of cheers, applause and numerous declarations of love from fans of both genders. She smiled and joked with the audience for a second and then began singing, unaccompanied, and all crowd noise immediately ceased. "Singing" isn't even the right word, it was more like a form of guttral, musical emoting that mixed the soulfulness of scat with the throaty passion of a tribal war cry. Either way it demanded attention and its beauty held the room in thrall until the melody began seguing into something recognizable and Merrill started looping the beginning of  w h o k i l l highlight "You Yes You". The all-ages crowd, comprised of at least 50% women went from rapt attention to collective dancing as if their bodys had been physically up-shifted and the show began.

What is amazing about tUnE-yArDs is their ability to seamlessly meld all the seemingly contradictory pleasures one could ask from a live music experience. Powerful yet intimate, straightforward yet layered, technical yet also organic, its immediately engrossing. Each song began with Garbus building a bed of samples using her voice, drums and even tapping the mic stand. It's an impressive thing to watch, like experiencing a cathedral of sound being built up right before your ears but also an intimate one, showing all the small quirky bits of each song. As the loops run, Garbus will begin singing and drumming slowly, revealing the song's full skeleton, without fully tipping her sonic hand.

Here must be noted the contributions of bassist Nate Brenner and saxophonists/multi-instrumentalists Noah Bernstein and Matt Nelson. Their energy and color on w h o k i l l moved tUnE-yArDs from a cult band to an unlikely crossover darling and they don't dissapoint live either. Brenner's bass provides both texture and melodic counterpoint with the saxs adding grit and color. Other times, Bernstein and Nelson would abandon their primary instruments and add percussion with pot lids, wooden shakers and other found objects lending the haphazard brilliance of the performance. The band's fifth member was arguably the mix. Lincoln Hall is always an outstanding venue but tonight, it must be said that its sound particularly shone. Garbus' ukelele ping-ponged horizontally across the mix and had just the right prescence. Brenner's bass sounded appropriately phatty, clean or even subdued, as the song required. The horns and extraneous percussion were always vibrant and clear, accentuating songs without ever overpowering vocals or melody. 

The overall effect was one of quirky charm mixed with stirring power. Songs that started as playful tapping would build to accomplished pop gems and sometimes to towering walls of sound. The set comprised almost entirely of  w h o k i l l songs (only "Wolly Wolly Gong" was omitted) each of which elicited singalongs from the crowd as Garbus touched on everything from the music business to body image issues to, of course, love, war and politics. "Bizness"'s middle section built to controlled anarchy as horns blared, drums pounded and countless samples faded in and out. The intro and some of the drumming on "Gangsta" was reworked to equally successful effect while "Powa" was a two-person tour de force with just Garbus and Brenner onstage. During "Riotriot", Merril didn't even need that much as her solo declaration that "there is a freedom in violence that I just don't understand" shook the rafters and induced chills.

BiRd-BrAiNs favorites "Hatari" and "Real Live Flesh" were also well-received. The latter not only benefited from a higher-fidelity, more energetic live setting but also struck a chord with much of the audience for its strong gender politics. "Hatari" lost the claustrophobia of its studio incarnation and drove it's relentless ukelele hook with the slight hiccup forever into the back of everyone' head. After the song, Garbus told the audience of her ability to direct charity towards East African hunger and then offered $5 hugs after the show to raise further funds. This was followed by a new song, seemingly inspired by the Somalian drought that sounded less dense but no less melodic than most of the last record.

But any review of tUnE-yArDs is, ultimately a review of Garbus and I can't overstate how impressive she was tonight. Most reviews of female performers seem hell-bent on dwelling on their looks but I will just say this, with her sorta sideways half tomboy haircut, blue and turquoise dress and face paint that split the difference between African warrior and Aladdin Sane-era Bowie she possesed a beauty that can't be bought - that of a passionate woman expressing herself without inhibition. This came across in her stage banter (topics included Jedi, Muppets and Ezekiel cereal), her mannerisms and most importantly, her performance. Garbus is making powerful, intelligent music whose sound and lyrics are equally compelling. It's fun music about serious subjects, thoughtful without being overwrought or self-conscious and bursting with seemingly effortless joy at every seam.

I've been fortunate enough to plug into the energy that is a live tUnE-yArDs show twice this year and I can honestly say that both were unlike any other performance I've seen. Right now this is a band making inspired music and translating it perfectly on stage, a combination you will rarely see so fully realized. This is the real deal and every person in the house Wednesday night knew that they were lucky partake in it.

Real Live Flesh
You Yes You

Buy W H O K I L L and BiRd-BrAiNs.

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