It’s a fact that within the limited musical sphere everyone lazily calls “indie,” Tune-Yards is one of the most bracing live bands. Its combination of musical performance, tuneful immediacy and obstinately idiosyncratic instrumentation lends itself to the most difficult of tasks—making New Yorkers dance. But with Merrill Garbus at the reins—her facepaint highlighting her open facial expressions as she twisted her rubbery voice past the adventurous—the crowd became as loopy as the tracks on Tune-Yards’ last album, whokill.
While the giggly and intricate tracks on Bird-Brains and whokill make Tune-Yards exceptional, the band’s ability to play them live elevates the performance to excellence. Loop pedals have been used more dexterously before but perhaps never with more soul—or danger (if you screw up once on a loop-based track, the song is ruined). It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly it is that the loops seemed so alive, but the following illustrates why they were so interesting. During the rev-up section on “Killa,” during the second encore, Garbus did her usual trick of recording a percussion background so that she can play on top of it. She quieted the audience, lest its cheers end up ingrained in the track; however, one stray “whoo!” made it. That “whoo!” became part of the beat, part of the very fabric of the song. That level of audience interaction is not without precedent (really, the only thing that makes Tune-Yards completely unique is the presence of the frontwoman with a personality as massive as her pipes), but it is certainly exceptional.
While Tune-Yards might not be the most groundbreaking experimental band of all time, it’s certainly one of the catchier in recent memory. Combined with the stellar live band of bassist/percussionist Nate Brenner and two squirrely, squealing saxophones, Garbus performed nearly all of whokill, then played from a smattering of her first, lesser album, Bird-Brains. Every song had an earworm highlight, a musical idea that gave it a reason to exist—for “Powa,” it was that high note at the end that she absolutely nailed; for the apparently unreleased “Party Can,” it’s the glorious “Do you want to live?” posed to the audience. Even on “Riotriot,” my least favorite track off of whokill, Garbus climaxes with the absolutely killer line, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand!”
Tune-Yards boils down to catchy songs played by an eclectic instrumentation through invigorating live performance, all held together by a crazy-talented, crazy-charismatic frontwoman. It’s weird music, for sure. But it’s also one of the best live shows out there.