One-woman wonder

tUnE-yArDs – The Bell House – February 5th 

Merrill Garbus, the driving force behind the ambitious project tUnE-yArDs, may not have been on the radar for long, but she is quickly making up for lost time. tUnE-yArDs has opened for a number of prominent acts, including Atlas Sound and Dirty Projectors back in November. (1) Her show at the Bell House last night was one of the first she has headlined. I’m used to playing shorter sets – 30 or 45 minutes max, so I had to write some more songs. 

Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs photo: Chrissy Piper

Garbus has a real knack for getting people’s attention. It probably didn’t hurt that she studied theater at Smith College. In a fascinating interview with the Rob Harvilla of the Village Voice, she says: 

I definitely honed the ability to demand attention […] When I first started doing open mics, which were a similar kind of thing, like, “Get people’s attention in the first five minutes – or 30 seconds – or be ignored. 

From the first crazed beats of her drums, Merrill Garbus was captivating. The sheer energy encapsulated in her music is impressive, and her persona is intriguing… to say the least. She sings through two microphones and carefully loops her vocals, drums, and ukulele, gradually building up each song before your eyes. There’s no laptop. Not here, anyway. Aside from the minimal contributions of the accompanying bass player in the background, she is a one-woman show. 

The music of tUnE-yArDs is a frenetic combination of DIY folk and tribal-like beats. But don’t group her with Vampire Weekend just yet. Merrill Garbus reportedly spent some time in Africa and even speaks Swahili. Her music is more than just a re-working of African beats. It expresses her feelings with her strange experience abroad. In the same Voice  interview, she references her time in Africa and the song “Hatari”: 

I grew an obsession with African music, before I was in Africa and afterward. It’s more my feeling of being an American and experiencing Africa as an American […] I really thought that I was going to be dancing half-naked to Paul Simon’s ‘I Know What I Know’ on the savannah. So the song is grappling with what actually happened. 

As she sang – or more accurately at times, bellowed – into her two mics, Garbus looked out into the crowd with the intensity of an animal in the Sahara. Her gaze was simultaneously poised, confused, frightened, observant, and fierce. Her incongruous mix of vulnerability and confidence was a winning combination. People in the audience began to dance and chant along to the songs. 

Near the end of her rousing set, Garbus confessed: I’m super embarrassed. I’ve never played before so many people who know they’re here to see me. I’m blushing under my zebra stripes. Sure, her shtick (and her voice) may not be for everyone, but there’s no denying that her performance was stunning. 

Check out tUnE-yArDs playing “Fiya” live at the Museum of Natural History in LA last month:

 

(1) Regarding the MHOW show, Village Voice reported that she “rendered the Dirty Projects a mere afterthought.” Yikes. 

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