Monday, July 18, 2011

tUnE-yArDs at Pier 54 Hudson River Park's River Rocks 7/14/2011

So I have bad news for every other band. It's going to take a lot to steal the coveted "best gig I saw this summer" title away from tUnE-yArDs. And I have a feeling this will hold true not just for me, but for most of the almost 5,000 fans who attended the kickoff show for Hudson River Park's River Rocks 2011 concert series on Thursday, July 14th.

I must admit, the praise surrounding Merrill Garbus and her solo project tUnE-yArDs (Garbus previously performed as a member of the band Sister Suvi) has been a little lost on me. While it is impossible to deny the unparalleled talent in her unique recordings and the video taped performances of Garbus effortlessly looping drum and vocal tracks on the spot, it has always been difficult for me to throw my full support behind an artist whose songs are not exactly mainstream accessible (no apologies). Even tUnE-yArDs's second album w h o k i l l, which marries Garbus's world music influences with the pleasing structure of the pop song, took a few listend before I could admit it was just OK. But you should never truly judge a musician until you see them live.

Garbus immediately asserts herself as an artist you will not take your eyes off of for the entire set. She opens with that "Do You Want To Live" song which begins with her signature intricate vocal looping. 10 seconds in you are amazed that she is still the only person on stage, as the web of sounds she creates so quickly and flawlessly fills the night (a particularly beautiful summer night on the water with the Empire State Building and a full orange moon behind you, complete with fireworks to to punctuate the performance with an exclamation point). When Garbus begins banging her drums and she shouts "Do you want to live?" your heart is jumping out of your chest as you scream back "YEAH YEAH YEAH!" Because of the nature of what Garbus does in live performance, all of her songs start out bare-boned and build slowly into a party where everyone has drank the kool-aid, and that feels so special to be a part of. Additional highlights include single "Bizness" and single-worthy "Gansta" as well as sexy rock-y ballad "Powa."

Everything technical about a tUnE-yArDs performance is muscle memory. As Maura Johnston suggested in her Village Voice review, "It would be amazing to watch her from above, which would offer a fantastic vantage point for her pedal manipulating" (read the whole article it's brilliant). There is no way Garbus does not know herself inside and out musically. This allows her the freedom to be most expressive with her voice. She can switch between a delicate falsetto and a primal scream at the drop of a hat, as easily as her songs switch from African rhythms to hip hop inspired beats. Garbus was joined by a bass player and two saxophone players (who occasionally hit Coke bottles and pot covers as added percussion) but she carried the entire show herself.

Walking away from the show, I mentally moved w h o k i l l up to my top 10 of 2011 so far. Not because I think it sounds any different now, but because listening to it will always bring me back to Thursday and to what was pretty much a perfect NYC summer night.

Le fireworks.

Opening for Ms. Garbus was stoic-faced Canadian band Austra. Quickly: the lead singer Katie Stelmanis is an icy Stevie Nicks and the pretty-boy keyboard player has the best legs I've seen (on a male OR female). The band's dark, bass-heavy, slow disco treats the vocals (Stelmanis has a pair of female twins backing her up) as another instrument in the mix. Normally this turns me off (probably has everything to do with the fact that I was a singer myself) but it seemed to work well for Austra, especially beacuse the mics were relatively clean with limited effects. Austra impressed me enough to finally look into their stuff (I had managed to avoid them even though the blogosphere was practically begging me to pay attention) but I definitely get the feeling this is more of a winter album.

First tUnE-yArDs photo courtesy of Sarah Benditt.