I missed the Tune-yards when they performed at the Troubadour this July. The show was sold out, and I was not clued in yet to the complex rituals of obtaining second-hand tickets to LA concerts. Thankfully, Merrill Garbus was back in town four months later, and last Wednesday, I found myself part of the pandemonium that accompanied her Music Box performance.
Seriously, I run out of superlatives.
Picture this. Two opening sets have come and gone. The first, Pat Jordache – and what appeared to be four of his family members accompanying him on instruments, always interesting to see family bands together – had catchy hooks and a very disquieting vocal palette. (Track of note: ‘Phantom Limbs’) The second was turntablist Cut Chemist, previously known for his work with DJ Shadow and Ozomatli, who got everyone grooving to his percussion-hopping, genre-squishing vinyl shenanigans. And then Merrill comes on stage, wearing a purple dress with green papier-machey necklace and a cheerful smile that appears completely at odds with the warpaint on her face. She closes her eyes briefly, and then launches into a 3-minute vocal outburst that is part yodel, part gutteral wail, part ritualistic war-cry. The crowd roars with her. She finishes , the band has slid into positions, and they launch into the thumping ‘My Country’. The song is a propulsive, celebratory melody that made me want to run around the house, shrieking with glee, when I first heard it early this year. Hearing it live makes me grin like a maniac and frantically try record it on the phone. The band clangs on pans and utensils to get the chaotic feel of the song just right, Merrill’s voice is powerful enough to make chandeliers sway and hair stand on end. The synth line comes in, I give up futile attempts to record for posterity and just give myself up to the music.
Merrill, on stage, is funny, whimsical and so totally at ease with the complicated loops she creates on the fly, multi-layered textures of her voice for different phrases in the songs. She switches between drumsticks and a ukelele – the second ukelele performance I had seen that week, more on that later. Some of the drum loops – especially the bass thumps – are pre-programmed (I think), with the fill-ins layered by her live, and at times she even hits her microphone stand to get the right sound. The other musicians include a bassist and occasional knob-twiddler, and a saxophonist and a trumpeteer. Nothing fancy, but the overall effect is one of an insanely well-coordinated outfit that knows how to gut-punch the crowd.
Cut Chemist comes out again, joining the band on ‘Gangsta’, overlaying the song – already a catchy number – with a delicious scratch-track. Pure fucking magic. One of the best concerts I’ve seen so far, and I’ve seen pretty great bands this year. When the Tune-yards are coming back to LA – and they most definitely are – I am going again. Yes, it’s that good a band.