“I’ve got something to say,” tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus sang at the start of her show last Friday at The Fillmore in San Francisco. And she does! She totally does.
A good tUnE-yArDs track is like a puzzle — layers and layers of sound, led by African-inspired percussion looped over and over itself with electric bass and Garbus’ sometimes-soaring, sometimes-chanting voice, which all come together to make a whole glorious pile of sound that rewards repeated listens with an increasing appreciation for the complexity and layering at work. tUnE-yArDs came to prominence with the release of 2011 album W H O K I L L, and now they’re back on the road with the May release of third album Nikki Nack, which is already garnering critical success.
If you’ve never seen a tUnE-yArDs show, Garbus does the same thing live, playing a drum beat, recording it, and looping it while she performs the rest of the song. On several songs, she loops a drum beat, plays synthesizer with one hand and drums with the other, all while singing, and yes, it’s basically the coolest fucking thing in the entire world. For this tour, the stage was adorned with what can only be called an eye motif, with huge staring eyeballs looking down at the stage from all corners, including from the keyboard and drum set.
Garbus was joined on stage as she always is by bassist Nate Perkins. New for this tour, though, is a full backing band (which also features on Nikki Nack), with two backup singers and a backup percussionist, bringing tUnE-yArDs’ total on-stage headcount to 5. On a few older songs from Whokill like “Powa” and “Gangsta,” the band left the stage for a breather, but came back swinging (and dancing, and clapping on a loop) for newer songs like the recent single “Water Fountain.”
At first, I was concerned this would water down Garbus’ considerable stage presence, but everybody involved has so much energy that it elevated the whole performance, even as it enabled tUnE-yArDs to tackle more complex melodies and generate an even bigger sound on stage. The spotlight definitely stays squarely on Garbus, On “Business,” especially, Garbus really went all out, busting out the ukelele and having the band sing the backing vocals into the looper.
And the crowd loved it: The entire crowd stuck with her completely transfixed through 13 songs and 2 encores, including an a capella rendition of “Rocking Chair,” led by Garbus and Amelia Randall Meath, the singing half of opening act Sylvan Esso. For the entire two minutes of the very quiet, very delicate performance, the crowd was completely silent.
(A brief aside about Sylvan Esso: I respected what they were going for and the crowd seemed to love it, and Meath isn’t a bad singer by any means, but the combination of electronic beats delivered by DJ Nicholas Sanborn and the awkwardest white-girl dancing this side of my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah left me pretty cold.)
The crowd was less silent when Garbus led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to a random audience member. And there was very little restraint from the audience when Garbus referred to her, um, unique stage attire when she joked that “nobody has ever called [her] slick, except maybe when she wears that dress.”
In short, the show was just like the tUnE-yArDs you’ve come to love, but bigger and more. Yeah, she’s got something to say: She’s possibly the coolest motherfucker alive.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2014 Diana Cordero and Adriana Marrero.