All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Kara Capelli
There is no way to prepare for the tUnE-yArDs if you have not heard them before. An alternative sound project of one Merrill Garbus, you’ll just have to listen to the band as you read along. Garbus walked on stage at the 9:30 club. She was barefoot, red legging-ed, gauged, and striped in paint across her nose. Garbus had a hot tea and an opaque bottle full of something. And then she belted. She sang a huge note. And looped it. Looping with pedals, she put down all vocal tracks, added harmony, added some yelling, and a tribal melody. For this first track, she let us know up front just what kind of show this is. Over her recorded voice, she sang-talked impassioned nonsense words, complete with gesture and eye-popping facial expression. Here she was not singing lyrics but she did have the essence of a jazzy style, the mood of a lyric in her voice. That voice catches somewhere between bassy-brassy and a sweet falsetto, a tangy / sweet or sugar / hot sauce combination. When Garbus switches between a high and low octave, she also has this way of sounding a little like Joni Mitchell, whose stunning vocal ring toss lands on the metaphorical milk bottle every time. While Garbus’ inventiveness goes a long way in her performance and songwriting, her voice is the main attraction. She has quite a range and major control over her instrument so she sounds alternately pretty, angry, growling and angelic, depending on the need.
She had two sax players with her, as well as Nate Brenner, bass player and collaborator, who gave the 2011 album w h o k i l l the gravity and grounding this out-there creation needed. In the persistently optimistic “You Yes You,” and many of the other songs, Brenner is a clear and confident edge to the music. Whereas bass ordinarily blends in, in an arrangement so precise it’s easy to hear Brenner step in, the instrument humming along with Garbus. “You Yes You” has a kind of optimism and confidence you’ll find in most of the tUnE-yArDs’ songs. “I’m not your fantasy girl / I’m not your fantasy love,” Garbus belted out powerfully on “Real Live Flesh,” maybe acknowledging her androgynous singing style and nature. The bass dropped in hard on this track, and the audience, inspired by the well-timed vowels Garbus is looping, they clap to something pretty fast (at least 1/8th or 1/16th beat, perhaps which is pretty impressive as far as audience clapping goes).
After finishing up Real Live Flesh she said, “But can you slow dance to it, is the question?” laughing to herself. This show felt like a compilation of Garbus’ inside jokes and private thoughts. To start “Powa,” she sang what sounded like the first two notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which was probably unintentional and unrelated, but it accentuates diverse sounds produced and influence Garbus drinks in. Elsewhere in the song, I find I didn’t realize rocking out on a ukulele was possible, but this lady has learned how to power palm mute on the instrument. And then she did something weird, she held the uke up to her mouth and sang into and over it, experimenting with the sound onstage. I find that kind of amazing, that she’s still curious or focused on the menagerie of sound when she is presenting the finished product. This leads me to the conclusion that the songs, while carefully arranged are, in a way never finished.
“Es-so” is typical of Garbus’ style. The music generally has a funky, laid back quality to it, and it’s interesting. It isn’t the fact that Garbus is her own backing track (in voice and uke and drums) that is so impressive; much of the effect is that she’s so passionate, with all the nervous energy and fearlessness of a young kid. So remember your parents asking, “If she jumped off a bridge, would you do it?” Garbus started jumping, the band caught on, and then we all jumped up and down with her in time to the beat. And there’s the trashcan lid and baking pan percussion worth mentioning. It accompanied her in “Es-so” and through the show, thanks to her sax players/sheet metal percussionists wielding drumsticks in front of mikes.
In “Killa,” this well-manicured soundscape fell apart. Discordant bass and one small sax line sampled didn’t fit together so well, purposefully I think, a small shadow cast over the music. This happened in lyrical tropes, too. Garbus used some that are well intentioned (“buckled up all safe and sound”) but coupled with the experimental style they had a way of sounding all wrong and alarming.
After intense performances of two of her best tracks(“My Country” and “Gangster,” listen to them, seriously), the tUnE-yArDs ended the show. The audience was again inspired by Garbus. They did not cheer, but made wailing siren sounds (like those she sang in “Gangster”) to rally her back on stage. In the encore session, she asked, “Who’s never seen us before tonight?” Then she said, “Wow, holy shit,” impressed by the number of hands in the air. She laughed and said surely there are people in the room that introduced us to the tUnE-yArDs, especially “our wonderful friends at NPR.” It hits me that tUnE-yArDs are such an NPR band. My god. tUnE-yArDs would totally be the between-segment music on “Fresh Air” and has already been talked about on “All Songs Considered.” Garbus ended the show with two songs off the more ethereal Bird Brains from 2009, “FIYA” and “Jumping Jack,” gentle tunes compared to the abrasive cymbal crash that is w h o k i l l, With those two songs done, Garbus exited, and we were left wondering whether the last hour was great or just new and fresh and really, really out there.
The night began with an offbeat and energetic show with a perfect introductory band, Mariachi El Bronx.
A dreamy overture in the style of an old western was piped over the speakers. It was the introduction of heroes. Mariachi El Bronx took their places in front of respective mikes. They exploded into a “tuning up” phase. They strummed, blew, and drummed as loudly and chaotically as possible. This is a huge band; we’re talking eight pieces here. That’s eight dudes, count em, who wore charro suits: high collared black jackets and matching black pants branded with an intricate curly white pattern. Oh yeah, and the back of these jackets were blazoned with a huge eagle. No big deal. Not ones to do anything half assed, Mariachi El Bronx wore huge corbatin ties as well, which are traditional garb (and look like giant floppy bow ties). This was pretty epic, and they hadn’t played a song yet. Singer Matt Caughthran introduced the band in a speaking voice that can only described as having a Bobcat Goldthwait tonality. He said, “This song is called ’48 Roses’ and it goes a little somethin’ like this.” And it began. In a song filled with tension and drama (surprise right?), trumpets blared in time with the violin, guitarrone, guitars and drums. Violinist Ray Suen was one of the most impressive musicians onstage. If you listen to the recordings of Mariachi El Bronx, you’ll see what I mean. It sounded symphonic, like he could have been in an orchestra (indeed, he was at one time). He was fast, passionate and he sang while playing. That’s not to take away from the rest of the band, particularly the drummer. El Bronx’s songs felt very rhythm driven, accentuated by all players’ precise performances. Their drummer had impeccable timing and relentlessly played their thumping beats.
Here’s the best part of Mariachi El Bronx: they’re an LA hardcore punk band that felt invigorated by playing mariachi music. Seriously. Take a listen to both “The Bronx” and “Mariachi El Bronx.” Same band. El Bronx can’t help but be a little punk, though. In “Silver or Lead,” they sang “quit asking Jesus for help / and go out and find it yourself,” and happily ended the song with this harmonized lyric: “Now we get your money / ’cause Jesus is dead!” As a joke, I was tempted to label this as the Taco Bell of mariachi music, but their style and skill was too legitimate for me to actually use such a comparison. Even Caughthran (who looked the most out of place as a stocky guy with a shaved head) sang lyrics like “I’ve been hypnotized by my revolution girl” with heartfelt attitude. He was into it, as was most of the band. He had a spunky presentation. He shuffled a small dance between his vocal lines, and unabashedly gestured at the crowd for more applause. His introductions were another highlight of the show. They ranged from, “This is for the weekend warriors, who have to go back to their shitty jobs tomorrow,” to “Send this one out to the original pervert, Richard Dawson” (of the Price is Right). The enthusiasm and energy used in these carefully arranged songs enhanced the music at times in an upbeat way and at others in dramatics. It was good music, and also perfect stuff for a Quentin Tarentino movie.
- Mariachi El Bronx