Photo by Maverick Inman

4,500 people in an outdoor venue is a hard crowd to control—especially when they came for free. But Merrill Garbus, master architect of loop-pop outfit Tune-Yards, had the crowd at Pier 54 in the palm of her hands—at least when her hands weren’t occupied by drum sticks, microphones, keyboards or a ukulele. In support of her acclaimed sophomore album whokill, Garbus performed with the live members of Tune-Yards to get a crowd of the hippest in hip (eat your heart out, Carles) to start dancing.

Before Tune-Yards, a Toronto gothy trio called Austra played. Expanding to six members live, Austra was an odd counterpoint to the warm sunset of Hudson River Park—the lead vocalist’s semi-Bjork aesthetic deserves to be in a hermetic warehouse, preferably cooled to a balmy 50 degrees. Austra had a danceable pulse, and combined with the three vocalist’s gestures and the keyboardist’s amazing Robert Plant hair, the band tried to chill the atmosphere. And they succeeded, sorta; by the end of the set, the sun was down, and it was definitely colder.

Decked out in face paint, Garbus recreated the labyrinthine nature of her percussion-heavy albums with an advanced looping pedal and a lot of coordination. The trick about loop-based songs is that if you mess up even a little bit—sing a bad note, hit the loop pedal a second too late, breathe the wrong way—that error becomes ingrained in the entire song, and there is no going back. So it was wonderful that Garbus, often handling four instruments in a song, could create complicated song structures live, and it was even more wonderful that the songs happened to rock.

The rest of Tune-Yards contributed ably—an electric bass provided the harmonic grounding while twin saxophones traded solos. But the real focus was on Garbus: singing a vocal part, looping it, singing a harmony, looping that, singing another harmony, looping that. No audio workstations required, no laptops. It was all so incredibly alive and vital. Garbus’ elastic voice contributed heavily to the proceedings—able to produce a wispy coo for one moment, able to sustain a massive yell for the next seven. Highlight “Powa” showcased her vocal abilities, testing the limits of her upper range and her vocal strength—both quite formidable.

There was a beautiful kind of symmetry: Garbus came on, pointing at the full moon behind the audience. And during the encore, a slew of fireworks erupted behind the stage. Gotta love fireworks.

Austra photos below, and Tune-Yards on the next page. All photos by Maverick Inman

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