First Avenue, Minneapolis
July 17, 2014
In April of 2010, an artist going by the name Tune-Yards presented an exuberant, frenzied set of loops and vaguely tribal-sounding percussive elements for those either informed enough or bored enough to wander into The Cave that particular evening. This "student-run nightclub," as described by the Carleton College website, hid in the shadows of a coffee shop on its Northfield, MN campus. Merrill Garbus stood upon its tiny stage, layering seemingly incidental scraps of beats and melodies into songs. She whispered to us comfortingly, then unleashed a torrent of shrill wails.
Piling five-deep into a ride back to Minneapolis, our Garbus-fueled state of sonic inebriation refused to lessen its grip. We were her hostages still.
Last night, Tune-Yards sold out First Avenue. A tepid sea of admirers stirred before Garbus. "Lord, Jesus, where did y'all come from?," she asked from the stage, in disbelief at its mass. Her question met an approving roar. "There's sold out," she continued, "and then there's sold out."
Today, Tune-Yards is a collaborative effort between Garbus and bassist/keyboard/synth player, Nate Brennard. They were joined last night by two back-up singers and a second percussionist. Rather than feeling gratuitous, these additions served to amplify the core duo's performance. A pinkish hue illuminated their calculated movements, hands moving mathematically above keyboards and drums. Behind them, eyes on the backdrop watched as limbs began to loosen.
People were dancing. Fashionable couples with Uptown condos and designer jeans were dancing. Older men in Hawaiian shirts were dancing. Hipsters were dancing. A guy with a closely-shaved mohawk was dancing. Everyone was dancing to this kaleidoscopic innovation, many with closed eyes or hands held up above them as if at worship. Music this appealing to such an all-encompassing variety of demographics doesn't seem to happen often these days.
Admittedly, local media outlets like the Current must assume some responsibility for the presence of such a fan base in Minneapolis. The station had kept Tune-Yards on constant rotation for some time now. Garbus even paused to graciously thank the Current for their support during one of her short and somewhat scripted moments of on-stage banter, a comment that drew cheers.
Most songs required a bit of architecture before the group could begin them in earnest. This process was fascinating to watch. Garbus casually banged down a couple times, recording the initial drum loop. Quickly, she added additional loops one on top of the other. Vocals were prepared in a similar manner, one looped note, word or verse becoming several layers of itself sung in different registers. Sometimes it was clear what particular song these fragmented pieces were being manipulated for. Other times the endgame was not so clear. Several songs in, Garbus emitted a couple shrill tones into the microphone. As the tones played back, she mimicked them in a different key. In this case, we knew what was coming.
Heads were suddenly thrown back, mouths stretched in an "O." The siren increased in volume, propelling the group into the opening verses of "Gangsta." Garbus pointed one drumstick menacingly towards the audience as she lectured, "Never move to my hood, 'cause danger is crawlin' out the wood." While discussing this song in interviews, she is quick to name Brennard as its co-writer. For a year, "Gangsta" existed only when they chose to play it live. Garbus found translating its original, entirely improvised form into a language appropriate for recording difficult. Brennard was able to manipulate the raw material into something they both felt fit onto Whokill, Tune-Yards' second full-length.
Fans continued to scream their way through another chorus, some still mimicking the sirens while others joined in Garbus's chant. Unexpectedly, she broke into a vigorous drum solo. Then we bore witness to a more playful Garbus. While the rest of the stage remained silent, she pulled her microphone close and recorded a couple of adorably baby-voiced, off-key squeaks and shrieks. The loops continued to play back. She kept drumming along until each of the others had joined her once again, jumping exaggeratedly up and down to the beat as the song finally reached a sweet crescendo which was met by thunderous applause and shouts of approval.
Interestingly, Garbus chose to immediately follow this crowd-pleasing hit with a grouping of songs from 2009's BiRd-BrAiNz. This debut album was recorded almost entirely by Garbus alone on a digital tape recorder, its tracks mixed with GarageBand. There is no soap-opera fog between the listener and the artist, no auto-tune involved. The recordings sound almost vintage, as if they were made before mixing and mastering became such a sly form of trickery. The album captures an informed joyride through a world of influences ranging from folk to Afrobeat and even reggae.[page]
After recording several drum parts Garbus retreated into the shadows, returning with a ukulele cradled in her arms. Fans yelled excitedly. "I always love it when the ukulele gets cheers, " she exclaimed. "That's awesome." Ukulele in hand, she laid down some vocal loops, leaving notes hanging low over the room. Finally a clear voice emerged. "I'm not your fantasy girl, I'm not your fantasy..."
"Real Live Flesh" sounded like a different beast entirely when played through the system at First Ave. Its deep groove was punctuated by the pounding bass, and Garbus appeared to be putting extra force into her drumming. Her drum sticks rang out like a violent crack of lightning each time contact was made. The song contains an intriguing set of vocal loops, offset by coyly sung verses. Fewer were singing along now, but the audience remained transfixed by what was taking place. For songs from this particular record, Garbus stood on the stage alone. The songs were performed exactly as they were initially written and recorded. Switching deftly between instruments, Garbus again made a difficult task appear simple and fun.
"Stop That Man" brought us back into today's Tune-Yards, noticeable fattened by electronic elements and pausing to allow for a lengthy keyboard solo. At times the drum beat felt almost industrial, as Brennard coaxed unnervingly high-pitched extraterrestrial sounds from the keyboard. If each Tune-Yards song has the ability to take the listener inside of itself, the place within "Stop That Man" was far more furious and dark then those we had visited earlier this evening. It also felt significantly more contemporary, proving that the Tune-Yards, though synonymous with terms like "lo-fi folk" and "Haitian-inflected grooves," can also feel at home amongst today's influx of electronic artists.
After "Stop That Man," Garbus made another attempt to address the audience. "It's such a moving experience to do this for you, and to have such weird-ass music be well received by so many people," she exclaimed. Then she recalled playing "Gangsta" live at the Cedar Cultural Center, during the early days of its conception. She remembered being thrilled at the positive reaction it received, and also surprised by the apparent wealth of support for her music in Minneapolis. "It seems like a city where people actually like living in it," she said, after praising sound technicians and other employees of local venues she's played here.
After the applause had quieted, Garbus launched into recording some loops of her own clapping hands. People on the floor began dancing ecstatically as "Water Fountain" began. The song showcased her singing prowess as she nailed every high note flawlessly, her voice full of conviction. When emitting loudly, it seems as if her throat may be lined with some kind of grit that scrapes its way out along with the notes. When reaching for higher octaves, it takes upon somewhat of a shrill quality. These qualities only serve to make it more appealing somehow, and the confidence in her delivery is palpable.
When the song ended, she praised the show's opener. "I'm so happy that I finally got to see Dosh!," she exclaimed. "When I first started looping, everybody was like, 'Well, do you know Dosh?' I didn't. Of course now I do...He's amazing." She also encouraged audience members to stop and chat with the OXFAM representatives who were at the First Ave doors, praising their work. This sudden abundance of chatter seemed to signal that we were beginning to wind down. Two songs later, this hypothesis was confirmed. The artists took a bow and ran suddenly off the stage. It was quite clear they would return for an encore, as the lights remained low and their goodbyes had been conspicuously short.
The encore was "Fiya," given an old-fashioned lullaby feeling by the presence of ukulele. It felt like an appropriate way to end our shared experience, leaving us all somewhat soothed. As the lights went up, folks chatted animatedly in the aisles, making it difficult to reach the exits. Just as back in 2010, Garbus was holding us hostage.
Critic's Bias: I'm just glad someone had the notion of inviting me to that show at The Cave four years ago. I was entirely blown away then, and have been a Tune-Yards fan since.
The Crowd: Most random assortment of every age group I could imagine. There were lots of people clearly there by themselves, too. It was a different crowd than I'm used to seeing at shows here, but made sense when I thought about the Current.
Overheard in the Crowd: Two younger women becoming frustrated every time the Tune-Yards didn't play one of their popular songs. They talked about how they wish you could fast-forward through concerts. "This song's okay, but let's go to the next one."
Time Of Dark
Wait For A Minute
Real Live Flesh
Stop That Man