Before tonight, I must confess, I knew little of Merrill Garbus. I knew that, since 2006, the New England native has been releasing music under her brainchild, and nom de plume, tUnE-yArDs, (yes, stylised exactly like that, much to the annoyance of Microsoft Word). I also know that in those six years, she’s become the “buzz” band amongst all my friends “in the know”, to use a couple of phrases I don’t really like. But that’s just about all I knew. So it was with a nerve tinged excitement that I made my way to the Sage Gateshead for a night full of pleasant surprises.
First up, Swimming Lessons and a healthy crowd turned out early for tonight’s support. The five piece from Leeds played through a charming set of atmospheric, guitar based, synthy poppy goodness. However, disappointingly, but rather aptly, the singer’s vocals seemed to be drowning in a sea of sound, a shame, because buried somewhere under the bulging bass and keys were some sweet vocals, with an interesting range.
By the time Merrill Garbus took to the stage, alone, barefooted, her face made up with bright yellow tribal make up and in a dress with shoulders as complicated as most of her music sounds , Hall Two at The Sage Gateshead had just about filled. From the start, it was clear there’s a lot of love for Garbus (“You’re really cool” one audience member shouts, seconds after she takes the stage. “You don’t know yet” is her modest retort.”), and from the start, it’s easy to see why. Opening the set with a track composed solely of yelps, screams and drums beats, recorded on the spot and then looped, via an array of effects pedals, and built into some sort of ethereal choir; Garbus creates a mesmerising effect that means from the very start she has the crowd in the palm of her hand.
After a couple of songs, I began to worry that the thudding, looping drums and recorded screams would get old pretty quickly, but as it turns out my initial fears were totally unfounded. None of that is a problem as you’re swept up in the unrestrained joyousness that tUnE-yArDs’s music emits. A lot of the credit for that can be attributed not just to Merrill, but to the band that join her a few songs into the set, particular the screeching bursts of soulful sax and wandering bass.
tUnE-yArDs are here to promote their latest album, 2011’s whokill, and it’s tracks taken from that album in which the band’s raw energy and intricate arrangements feel at its most funnest. There’s Gangsta’s junkyard groove, in which Garbus, rather brilliantly, records and loops her own screams until it resembles a police siren, something which she humorously admits herself is “annoying.” Then there’s the joyfully infectious Bizness, with its afrobeat heart and staggered rhythms. At one point she even offers the crowd the microphone to record their own screams. It all combines to create a level of celebratory and communal sense of DIY normally reserved for an episode of DIY SOS.
It’s near impossible not to be captivated by the carnivalesque, tidal wave of kaleidoscopic complex wonderment served up in the unbridled, infectious melodies. An impressive range of genres, from Afro-beat to pop, from R&B to experimental lo-fi, combine to create a sound that felt fresh, contemporary and innovative, whilst keeping a foot firmly planted in its influences’s past. If tonight proved anything for me, it’s that, live, tUnE-yArDs can certainly do the bizness.
words by George Shaw