tUnE-yArDs With Sylvan Esso Granada Theater, Dallas Friday, May 30, 2014
Merrill Garbus is a force of nature. From her big, booming voice to her colorful wardrobes and face paint to her unorthodox assemblage of looped tracks and beats, Garbus has made herself and her band tUnE-yArDs a singular force in indie music over the past half-decade. Yet last Friday, when she visited Dallas for the first time with a show at the Granada, the experience felt strangely familiar -- and that's not what Garbus' gifts, or her oft-surprising music, were intended to be.
Make no doubt about it: the show tUnE-yArDs put on Friday was undeniably fun. It kicked off with Garbus and her four-piece backing band circled up on stage with the lights down, incanting the words to "Rocking Chair" and alternately clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Garbus was dressed in a light blue slip with bright sashes around her neck and warpaint on her face, the backdrop of the stage draped with streamers and big hand-drawn eyes that looked right back at the audience. It was a scene full of life and imbued with a touch of carnival.
In fact, it wouldn't be too far off to describe the whole tone of the evening as a celebration. When Garbus belted out the words to "Real Thing," every inch of her body seemed to course with the music: "Oh my god, I use my voice!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms out and shimmying in place. The song isn't a celebration, of course. But to see Garbus perform it was like witnessing someone's awakening to herself, her gifts, her very liveliness.
Many of the songs from tUnE-yArDs' newest record, Nikki Nack, shared those qualities, and in particular the focus on its leader. Where once there were propulsive rhythms and looped and layered parts there was now a full band playing smoothed-out melodies. When it was time for Garbus to take the spotlight, she was there as though on cue, standing rigidly behind her drum or striking a pose to mirror the lyrics. It was tUnE-yArDs, alright, just a shinier version that had been plotted out and polished from years on the road.
What that all meant, however, was an experience somehow less spontaneous and unpredictable than it was once was. This particular brand of theater has become its own brand; being weird and surprising is what tUnE-yArDs does, but by its nature it ceases to be either after long enough. That's when it's all the more important for the music to do what it does best, and what tUnE-yArDs' does best is be unruly, not shiny or poppy or melodic.
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That was borne out when the trio of songs from the band's second album, w h o k i l l, were played. (Only one from their first album made the cut, and that was for the encore -- a telling sign in itself, perhaps.) The first of those three, "Gangsta," felt particularly combustible, the drum parts doubled up and bass line kept barely reigned in, as though ready at any moment to unleash some fierce rhythm. When the song cut in and out from snare shots to feral shouts, the tension of the moment held it all together.
"Bizness" had much the same power, while "Powa" stripped things down to a groove and a loop, with just Garbus and her bassist on stage, much as she started out years ago. Maybe it was more interesting that way. Or maybe, ironically, it was just more familiar. Either way, the crowd danced to the one, swayed to the other, and sang along to both. Music is a funny old bizness sometimes.
Critics' Bias: I'd say Garbus is one of the most exciting performers to appear in the past five years. The Crowd: Mostly teetering on the edge of dancing without ever committing Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm definitely buying a black light again"
Setlist: Rocking Chair Hey Life Gangsta Sink-O Real Thing Wait for a Minute Powa Wait for a Minute Stop That Man Bizness Water Fountain