Recap: tUnE-yArDs at Johnny Brenda’s
Photo by Eric Ashleigh
In a time when acts such as Odd Future and Salem garner more online attention due to controversy than they do their music, the Internet’s seal of approval might as well come with an expiration date. So, at first glance, Merrill Garbus’ tUnE-yArDs could come across as just another blog-buzz-band-of-the-week destined to disappoint. Since releasing Bird-Brains back in 2009, Garbus has been characterized as the ukulele-toting artsy-fartsy lady that, like, yells a bunch and does a lot of weird stuff with loops. (For those keeping track, Bird-Brains made Pitchfork’s 2009 Top 50 list; her second album, w h o k i l l, debuted last month to near unanimous acclaim.) For some, that unfair description might be enough to write Garbus’ music off as a stale photocopy of recent trends, her striking outfits and face paint as pretentious posturing, or her openness about politics and equality as insufferable grandstanding. Those who have listened to her records or seen her live, however, know differently: she’s the rare real deal in a sea of try-hards.
Garbus and her backing band came onto the stage at Johnny Brendas on Friday night like church mice. They fiddled with their instruments while the audience watched quietly and politely. Garbus, wearing a a pink-feathered outfit and with a green streak of paint over one eye, smiled at the crowd. Then she opened her mouth and obliterated the silence with a nonsensical a cappella chant. It flailed wildly, from a high pitch to a droning androgyny. The first response was actually intermittent laughter. But, in addition to some serious range, Garbus’ voice commands an undeniable power, which silenced the laughs pretty quickly. The nonsensical chant was shockingly loud, but Garbus was uncompromising. She pointed her drumsticks at the floor, then the balcony and repeated the chant. By the time she asked, “Do you want to live?,” she had full control over the audience in front of her—all before the first song had even officially started. Then she emphatically banged a pair of snare drums, slammed her ukulele, and the backing band kicked in.
Garbus reassured the audience with “You Yes You,” singing that “Everything is going to be OK.” But when the beat dropped and bass guitar led took the lead, insinuating that it was time to dance, the audience wasn’t so sure. One of the many things that makes tUnE-yArDs’ music so wonderful is that, despite the its overwhelming sense of brainy academia, the rhythms suggest dance and celebration. The crowd at Johnny Brenda’s didn’t exactly pick up on that hint; even during the most bottom-heavy songs, they mostly tapped their toes or shushed others. Still, they loved Garbus, regularly shouting “Merrill!” (which evoked a sheepish smile from the stage). The crowd’s energy might not have been of the kinetic variety, but it was still palpable, as was its reverence—both of which grew as the set went on.
“Gangsta” felt as fresh on stage as it did on record, shattering the notion that, in order to push musical boundaries, an artist must sacrifice enjoyablility. The saxophones jumbled together in a free-jazz noise jam, and Garbus chanted like an ambulance, but somehow held onto a melody and beat. She moved on to the lullaby “Powa” (from w h o k i l l), and the crowd was lost in contentment. “Fiya” (from Bird-Brains) started the same the way: it rollicked and then banged. “Bizness,” the biggest hit off w h o k i l l, was also a crowd-pleaser—it, too, had the quintessential tUnE-yArDs stamp of mixing accessibility and creativity.
Garbus seems oblivious to the popularity of lo-fi and irony. In interviews, she has acknowledged that she’s never had much of a handle on trendy indie music. (She admits that she had a big Dave Matthews Band phase before turning to classic rock.) Prior to recording Bird-Brains, she spent some time in Africa, distancing herself even further from access to the “it” bands. The time in Africa also contributed to her unabashed sincerity for bringing about change. She stopped the show after “Bizness” (which was written at the time of the earthquake in Haiti) to announce that all the proceeds from an EP would go to the Haitian relief effort.
During “Real Live Flesh” (a hit from Bird-Brains), Garbus harmonized with her own looped voice, as she sang “I’m not your fantasy girl / I’m not your fantasy love.” “Es-So” (off w h o k i l l), brought out two new musicians: an acoustic guitar player and a man beating on what appeared to be a cookie tin. They closed with Bird-Brains‘ “Hatari” and its sitar-sounding ukulele part; the song ended with Garbus emitting a series of fog-horn blast bellows directed at various parts of the audience. During that moment, she was 100 percent power, her facial expression one of forceful exertion bordering on strain. Then she quickly faded back to her relaxed smile as she thanked the audience and departed. The encore, w h o k i l l‘s opener “My Country,” started as a mock of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” before falling into an electronic call and response. Garbus, playing a synth, requested the audience repeat a vocal riff for her. The characteristically accommodating crowd diligently obliged and then praised her as she left the stage. —Dave Simpson