While a handful of music critics and fans recognized her earliest potential, it only took a couple years and a sophomore release (2011’s w h o k i l l) before the buzz about Merrill Garbus’s solo project tUnE-yArDs became impossible to ignore. Being an East Bay local, I’ve taken much pride in witnessing each step of the band’s transition. Super-stoked on 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs since her tour with Xiu Xiu, I couldn’t wait to hear what was next for the experimental, DIY soul-pop act. And though it’s easy to hate on a band or artist that hits big-time recognition relatively quickly — hell, she’s even getting nods of approval from Yoko Ono — if anyone deserves it, it’s this raw, talented, golden-throated, loop and uke-mastermind.
Being the last show of tUnE-yArDs and Montreal-based experimental pop act Pat Jordache’s tour, SF’s swanky open-spaced Regency Ballroom proved to be a more than fitting spot. Considering this was the night before Thanksgiving (or “Tofurkey Day,” as most of these bohemian San Franciscans attendants might prefer), a packed house was a modest surprise. Pat Jordache began his set promptly with a crew of three backing musicians — two percussionists doing their best auxiliary work à la Animal Collective’s Panda Bear stylings and one unquestionably skilled guitarist. With pedal-packed delay and the occasional pentatonic frills and trills, it’d be easy to mistake him for a disciple of Dave Longstreth. It wasn’t until Jordache, who pounded his way through a sharp repertoire of upbeat and occasionally dissonant tunes on bass, played a dead ringer for “Where the Streets Have No Name” did some of the guitarist’s delay-musings feel a tad too derivative.
Still, Jordache proved a friendly attitude, as he invited tUnE-yArDs onstage to accept a cake made in honor of appreciation. “We’re happy to have all our limbs intact,” Jordache mused, suggesting the tour must’ve been one to remember.
It’d been a while since I’d seen a performer completely own a crowd the way Garbus did when she finally stepped onstage. With an improvised intro of growls and looped a capella vocals, she sounded less like a woman and more like a force of fucking nature. The crowd responded in intense call-and-response: fists held high and outreached palms as if in prayer or spiritual acknowledgement. “This song will not continue until everyone’s mouth is open,” Garbus declared. The song not only continued but reached a peak of frenzy as the band busted into the opening moments of w h o k i l l standout “Gangsta.”
While some chose to dance, others chose to engage in some sort of pointing ritual whenever Garbus directed a drum stick at the audience — which she did a lot. While antics were certainly entertaining, the setlist stayed relatively within the bounds of w h o k i l l. “You Yes You” proved a strong groove between the outstanding bass work of Nate Brenner and Garbus’s stuttering ukulele strums; “Doorstep” felt just as doo-wop as it did politically relevant; “Es-So” bounced like no one’s business; “Powa” demonstrated a candid glimpse at raw sexuality yet without being perverse; and “Killa” held an almost bombastic cadence about womanhood and fierceness. Basically, an incredibly well-executed set of 80% from her sophomore sensation.
Still, the night’s highlight was the outstanding hit “Bizness.” An easy choice, perhaps. Like many, though, I can’t get over the seriously great live sax duo whose interweaving lines took the song to another level. It’s refreshing to hear how improvisation within such a finely tuned pop structure can do more than wonders. On the other hand, the band debuted a new song that felt more than a little flat to me. Set in a minor key, the spooky groove didn’t exactly go anywhere. “Someone recently asked me if I ever make any mistakes live,” Garbus said after a false start. “Now you know.”
Nevertheless, Garbus’ relentless experimentalism was the shining memory of the night. With aggressive vocal and percussion loops, seriously dissonant and precise ukulele accompaniment, the style of tUnE-yArDs is one of confrontation and complete invitation. Wielding her voice with deep expression and dynamics, the two encore songs of the night demonstrated this notion perfectly. Within the first few uke-plucks of “Fiya” (a song that gave Garbus some extra money needed to complete her last album via a Blackberry commercial), the crowd recognized such introspective lines as “When a girl feels so alone/ What a tease to throw a bone/ Should’ve just stayed at home” and “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?” The brilliant part, however, is how such a small song can erupt into a frenzy of dance — only to be followed by final encore “My Country.” As balloons were released and practically everyone took to shaking up a leg, the lyrics of “My country ‘tis of thee” rang vaguely fitting to the national holiday soon to follow.