June 23, 2010
Make no mistake: tUnE-yArDs‘ show displays the sort of oomph, pizazz and prowess to induce full-on obsession. And this higher-than-ceiling level of intense fangirling is not just emitting from me, on a whizzaround analysis of whoop-levels and dropped jaws. This hyperbole isn’t unexpected either, with Merrill Garbus performing like she’s got just five seconds to impress. From the moment she launches, she’s connecting and giving it everything with her phenomenal vocal range, blinding arrangements and an immense helping of charm presented near-aghast, with bulging eyes and direct calls to the crowd to interact. They’d do anything for her by the time the first song’s over…
From the beginning of the set to the grand finale of ‘Sunlight’, there’s never the sense of a momentum waiting to kick in, or the foreboding feeling that the next gear’s about to be reached; the entire show runs at optimum power. There is, however, a lurching feeling for each break and Mariah-high squee – just like Garbus‘ phenomenal show at Cargo earlier in the year, these frequent ‘moments’ are received with whoops, hip-shakes and wordless glances between audience members.
There’s the sense that we’re watching tUnE-yArDs as a ‘we’ rather a solitary ‘I’, in the presence of a performer with a blindingly unusual talent. The concept of layering one voice, tapping out African-influenced patterns on a single drum and picking out histrionics on the ukulele appears divisive at first, but Garbus breaks it down to make her mix look the norm. And the self-effacing yet super-confident nature of Garbus‘ show takes a hammer to the canon by showcasing the personality and drive at the heart of her vision.
There’s an incredible contrast between the complexity of this set’s genre-hopscotch, and the fresh and simple way it’s presented. Each slice of vocal is precisely slipped atop the previous, forming a tUnE-yArDs choir, and just how raw and exposed the processes are on stage automatically breaks down the obscurity. The construction of songs from BiRd-BrAiNs and Garbus‘ frankly astonishing new material (‘Gangsta’ and ‘Business’ the highlights) is clean and simple, with her dense vocals propelling the songs to impossible levels of exciting. ‘Hatari‘ is played out with deliberately ugly facial expressions, mirroring the often uncomfortable, personal lyrics in tUnE-yArDs‘ music, and each move feels perfectly placed.
Another striking observation is the guises Merrill Garbus conquers. She plays the sultry soul singer on ‘Real Live Flesh’, the hip-hop guest vocalist on ‘Gangsta’, the torch singer on ‘Fiya‘, the Alp-dwelling yodeler on ‘Hatari‘, even slipping into a punk frontwoman persona on ‘Do You Wanna Live?’. It’s more than just vocal stylism, adding a degree of acting and conversely childlike role-play, pinpointed by repeated sounds and call-and-response vocals.
The fun is replicated by the band she’s got with her tonight (as a one-off), comprising two almost-choreographed drummers, a guitarist and her regular touring bassist – they come in for occasional songs to add power and provide a human spotlight for tUnE-yArdS. Even as a heftier line-up, the additional members thankfully never overpower the main act, but they certainly do test the limits of the venue’s sound technicians.
Sitting somewhere over tUnE-yArDs‘ live show is an intense sense of relief, one where I realise I’ve found my new favourite. Each of her enormous strengths are so concentrated and visible, so when the songs are delivered, it’s a touching experience to gaze around the room at an audience wrapped up in the warm blanket of Merrill Garbus‘ vision. The excitement never dips, making the second album my most anticipated release in the limitless future. And watching this crowd move between rapture, open-mouthed wonderment and sheer, unfettered delight at not just the familiar songs but the new, suggests I’m far from alone in that thought.