Rough Trade NYC Hosts tUnE-yArDs: Concert Review
Rough Trade Records, New York City
(Wednesday, May 7)
Merrill Garbus' band celebrated their third album "Nikki Nack," which was released the day before.
A day after the release of her third album, the idea- and groove-stuffed Nikki Nack, Merrill Garbus brought her band tUnE-yArDs to New York's Rough Trade for a preview of a tour that won't properly hit New York City until late June, with two dates at Webster Hall. A sold-out audience joined her, witnessing a live act that is de-emphasizing (but not abandoning) the uke-playing and live loop-building of earlier shows, throwing even more influences into the mix and proving how tightly she can coordinate with supporting musicians beyond her songwriting and performance partner Nate Brenner.
Wearing an adventurous dress that paired a turquoise fish-scale pattern with red vinyl and iridescent gold, Garbus got plenty of sartorial competition from her bandmates, who were clothed in a riot of pattern and color that was jarring even in Williamsburg. Two singers danced behind her while a percussionist on her left balanced Brenner, on bass, to her right. Amorphous cloth beings, like grotesquely mutated puppets with wide, lidless eyes, draped over nearby mic stands to round out the gathering.
Garbus pleased the crowd by working her hit "Gangsta" in early on, but all save two of the other songs here ("Powa" and "Bizness," both also from w h o k i l l) were drawn from the new album. The opener, "Rocking Chair," set the tone for a night heavy on hand claps, simple chants and exotic influences (African pygmy polyphony, in this case), that, after this comparably simple number, were almost always adapted to fresh new contexts. Those looking to paint Garbus as a white girl stealing from the world's less privileged cultures would have to ignore how much she adds to her inspirations, especially in comparison to earlier generations of rock-and-roll culture-thieves.
They'd also have to acknowledge the extent to which she does the questioning for them. White American moral self-consciousness permeated Real Thing, whose couplet "I come from the land of slaves / Let's go Redskins, let's go Braves," will likely be the record's most quoted lyric. But danceability trumps earnestness on the record and in concert: The standout tune "Water Fountain," which blends infectious playground sing-song with lyrics conjuring wealth disparities both local and global, was even more buoyant here than on record. The singer has publicly admired M.I.A.'s brand of political pop, and this track makes it natural to compare the two artists.
Aside from encouraging some women in the room who were woo-oo-oohing along with her on "Powa," Garbus only really spoke to the crowd once, taking a moment near the end to thank those among them who worked for her record company 4AD. ("Who cries over their record label?" she asked when her eyes moistened during the shout-out.) She stood in place almost the whole time, pounding on the snare drum and tom in front of her and occasionally playing the rinky-dink Casio keyboard at her side. The sparse instrumentation belied the thick sonic atmosphere, and left one wondering how the tUnE-yArDs stage show might evolve if their increasingly accessible music starts to draw a larger audience. Maybe those droopy puppets will someday spring to life, utilizing Garbus' experience with a Vermont puppetry group to animate all those familiar-but-tweaked choirs Nikki Nack employs?
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