All photos by Julian Vu
When writing music or concert reviews, it’s easy to fall back on the inevitable “comparison” tactic. Trick is, you just can’t do that with tUnE-yArDs. Of course reviewers, concert promoters, your friend trying to explain why you MUST MUST MUST have their new CD “WHOKILL” will all start to give you a laundry list of influences from rock to soul to doo wop to reggae to folk. But to me, and probably to the sold out Red Palace on Thursday night, the appeal of tUnE-yArDs is that it’s one of the unique sounds out there today. And, as it turns out, they put on one helluva show.
At first, I thought the ticket was based on similar haircuts. The night’s opener, Buke and Gass (Gass rhymes with “bass” – the instrument, not the fish), are a Brooklyn-based duo. Arone Dyers plays a bass ukulele and provides the main vocals while Aron Sanchez rocks a hybrid guitar-bass and backs her up. But on hairdo’s alone, from far away, you could have mistaken them for tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner.
Once they began to play, however, the other similarities (heavy percussion without a drummer, musicians playing multiple instruments at once) faded away into the atonal, driving and haunting melodies engulfing the room. Buke and Gass play the type of music that is impressive, enveloping, loud and sets your teeth on edge just enough. Dyers’ voice more often than not tracked the melodies she expertly plucked from her uke against the rhythmic backdrop of a kickdrum and Sanchez’s hammering bass lines. This combined with the lack of song structure produces a somewhat bipolar feeling – as though your ears are being hit by a steel-stringed jackhammer one minute, and you’re dancing through a flowery field the next. When listening to tunes like “Sleep Gets Your Ghost,” I could see myself driving very very far, very very fast on a very very dark road with Buke and Gass blaring in the speakers.
Either way, the mastery of these musicians was evident and the audience was appreciative, cheering them back for an encore, the catchy “Outt!” You can check out their tunes here.
After our eardrums had been delightfully roughed-up, we were ready for a sweet resolution. Merrill Garbus was ready to oblige, appearing on stage like a hipster shaman, with her asymmetrical ‘do, a neon green streak across her face and giant pink taffeta poofs emerging from her shoulders. Basically, tUnE-yArDs is Merrill. What started as her brainchild and solo-project has morphed into two albums and a touring band comprised of her, Nate Brenner and Kasey Knudsen and Matthew Nelson providing a duet of saxophones (lord I love me some saxophone – there are simply not enough bands with saxes in them, IMHO).
Merrill picks up her little nylon-stringed, electrical taped ukelele. In the red light, she begins a vocal loop. Then loops a beat from her tom. It’s Hatari, from her first album Bird-Droppings. She sings softly at first, like we’re all sitting at a fireside. Then her voice opens up, big, making me want to crawl inside her throat. And so began the casting of a spell that would last for the next ninety minutes as Merrill expertly crafts vocal background loops and hit snares, toms, even the mic stand to form intricate percussion lines.
The audience is rapt. She asks us to sing and we do, just one long, loud note. She sings over us and says “That was nice thanks.” So everyone shuts the eff up because Merrill basically just told us to. Without a hesitation, the band transitions quickly into jam-mode, offering a call-and-response number. The question is easy: “Do you wanna LIVE?” The answer is an easier “YES!”
Then they start in with a seriously funky number off the new album WHOKILL called You Yes You and the swaying starts in earnest. During the lead out Merrill starts hopping up and down, smiling like a Cheshire cat while she jump-strums her uke. The whole house joins along because, well, we do what Merrill tells us to do.
Again, without a pause, they immediately break into Gangsta, a hard-marching tune about violence and community tensions that paints lyrics with sound, using voices and saxes like sirens and car horns, drumsticks like gunshots. The saxophones beat a hasty retreat afterward, leaving Merrill and Nate to settle us back down with two slower, beautiful tunes: Powa and FYIA. Powa is gentle lullaby about power, subjugation and humiliation that just happens to burst into the sexiest string slide you’ve ever heard on a ukelele. At one point, there’s a little feedback and through the relaxed strumming Merrill shoots the soundboard a look that means business. It’s one of those moments that make me realize how tight the set has been so far. Merrill is a performer. And probably a perfectionist.
She tells us, “For a sold out crowd you’re incredibly quiet and not in a bad way. It means you know I’m working incredibly hard up here.” And it’s true.
After the soft interlude, Merrill shows us her best chops and the saxes come back with some phenomenal riffing trills and honks to play My Country. Then the catchy, soaring sax line for Bizness (the first single off the new album) start and the crowd flips out.
The last song of the set, Doorstep, is a deeply soulful doo wop number that highlights the more delicate range of Merrill’s voice. It’s a somber yet sweet note to leave on. But it’s fitting, given the dark lyrics sprinkled among the catchy, upbeat tunes on WHOKILL. Case in point is the encore, Killa, a joyful yelp of a song about violence and disillusion. And just like that, as tUnE-yArDs leaves the stage to massive applause, the spell slowly breaks.
You can check out tUnE-yArDs here.