Sunday, Nov. 20
tUnE-yArDs makes music that is a relentlessly idiosyncratic and uncompromising mix of funk, R&B, folk, and African-influenced pop, and>"/>
tUnE-yArDs Sunday, Nov. 20 Neptune Theatre
Sunday, Nov. 20
tUnE-yArDs makes music that is a relentlessly idiosyncratic and uncompromising mix of funk, R&B, folk, and African-influenced pop, and perhaps as a result, Merrill Garbus has earned herself a serious cult following. That was clear from the moment she walked onstage Sunday night at an at-capacity Neptune Theatre to a chorus of cheers and "we love yous" from the mostly young and sporadically face-painted crowd.
At this point, most artists would launch right into their crowd-pleasing set-opener, but true to form, Garbus began her show with an extended a capella solo, showcasing both the range and brute strength of her powerful voice. Her three-piece band--bassist/multi-instrumentalist Nate Brenner and two saxophonists--joined her shortly after to begin the call-and-response madness of unreleased song "Party Can." This opening sequence was indicative of a performance that defied convention and was all the better for it.
While it seems reasonable to infer that much of tUnE-yArDs' popularity rests with the boldly personal nature of Garbus' music, which routinely deals with themes like racism, gender identity, and body image, what stands out more is her impressive musicianship. Garbus switched between ukulele, percussion, and synthesizer while holding down lead vocals, and she also demonstrated what might be the best display of live looping this side of Battles. tUnE-yArDs' live show makes extensive use of both drum and (especially) vocal loops, Garbus creates these on the fly and then deftly removes and inserts at will, sometimes even beginning a song by recording her backing vocals and not introducing them into the mix until the song is two-thirds finished.
It's this kind of innovation that makes it possible to play material from an album like w h o k i l l--an album that, on first listen, seems like it would require at least a five- or six-piece band to replicate onstage--with only two primary musicians. And play w h o k i l l she did, incorporating the entire album save two songs into her set. The best song of the night might have been "Bizness," easily the most accessible track from the new album, which features a nice avant-garde touch courtesy of some dueling saxophone solos in its live incarnation.
Similarly excellent were "Powa," an R&B-inspired slow jam that finds Garbus seriously flexing her vocal prowess, and the set-closing "My Country," which overcame some initial technical difficulties (a broken monitor seemed to be the culprit) to become a surprisingly danceable rave-up. It was a great show overall, and one that proves that breaking the rules doesn't just result in innovative music--it can also be one hell of a lot of fun.
Personal bias: Hearing Garbus nail the high notes at the end of "Powa" was one of those moments that reconfirms why live music is awesome.
Real Live Flesh