tUnE-yArDs Delivered Social Commentary Disguised as a Birthday Party at South Side

tUnE-yArDs With Son Lux South Side Music Hall, Dallas Thursday, April 9, 2015

Heavy times are upon us. Lyrics pleading "don't take my life away" sound more locked and loaded than ever. The warnings that tUnE-yArDs frontwoman Merrill Garbus fearfully described four years ago on W H O K I L L are now sirens barreling down the hilltop on an inevitable collision course with the comforts of blissful ignorance.

As she visited South Side Music Hall last night in Dallas, Garbus held steadfast onto the tUnE-yArDs message. The band delivered a kinetic social message under the childish guise of a birthday party — a spoonful of fluorescent sugar to make the police brutality medicine go down.

It would be easy for Garbus to use her performing power as a platform to preach politics. And at one point, it seemed like a necessary direction she'd take. Immediately prior to playing "Water Fountain," Garbus clenched the microphone as the lights solemnly focused on her.

"It's crazy out there in this country," she said, sending a piercing gaze through the audience, getting lost in the rafters. But with a blink she pivoted, retreating from politics and offering a wide smile. "And we're just so glad to be here with all of you people."

When Garbus mimicked the punching gunshots in the chorus of "Gangsta," she was consequently overtaken with fits of giggling and a sly smile as she fired a leery glance at the audience. Accidental laughter after describing inner city violence sounds borderline sociopathic, sure. But it's this blur between forcefulness and frivolity that allows Garbus to be both significant and silly.

It'd be easy to dwell on the all-too-real concerns that Garbus so plainly lays out: the looming threat of gentrification, the fogginess in keeping the justice system accountable and the undeniable presence of climate change. But instead she finds room to celebrate the individual and powers forward by shining a splash of multicolored light on the ordeal.

Even the stage's backdrop contained double meaning, with a gauche spread of crooked, razor-sharp teeth and randomly placed reflective eyeballs. Appendages absent of a body could be interpreted as meaningless infantile doodles, but when paired with lyrics like, "I don't wanna run out/So I'm running, running/Life, why do you keep me around?" it's hard not to see an untethered and disjointed Garbus trying to speak through the visuals as well as the music.

Not to say it was a static art piece to be enjoyed while being equally statuesque. Nay, Garbus and her cohorts extended an elastic energy to the crowd through her percussive voice and her, well, actual percussion. She lilted, she howled, she teetered back and forth from the microphone like a pendulum as her larynx waned and waxed the acoustics of the room.

And the audience responded because Garbus' democratic (ideological, not political) voice is not only large, but contains multitudes. Hers is that of an inclusive, omnipotent narrator that sings about looking good in debt or defending the Redskins' team name as an American birthright in a self-righteous jubilee. She's fully aware of the weight of her words, but she never allows the deeper significance to exclude or alienate the audience. Instead, she uses her divergent storytelling and chameleon voice to inspire unity and togetherness to combat the divisive perils she laments.

And no one was safe from Garbus' emotional battering ram as it thundered through South Side's doors. A towering refrigerator of a man in front of me, sporting a reversed baseball cap and a Don Draper squared jaw, looked on the verge of tears when Garbus pierced the high note of "Powa." And as she eased into the outro, he shook his head in a slow disbelief, grinning, while swaying his hands in the air. It was like seeing Ron Swanson shed a tear at the Grand Canyon.

Throughout the crowd, there were several tightly packed pockets of people dancing to Garbus' infectious rhythms out of sheer irresistibility. And rightfully so, as the entire tUnE-yArDs crew kept a restless energy throughout the set, shifting and jumping around and imposing a rag doll slow dance on the audience before playing "Real Thing."

Though Garbus clearly possesses a mind in tune with social quandaries, she showed that delivering a message and having as much fun as a fifth grade class at recess aren't mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, Garbus chose to forego the political soapbox rant by putting her money where her mouth was. The band had set up a foundation (titled The Water Fountain, of course) that takes $1 from each ticket to contribute to women's issues, climate change and conservation. And her explanation of the organization wasn't sanctimonious; in fact it was overwhelmingly appreciative of the people who showed up and indirectly supported the issues she fiercely targets as a lyricist.

Without skipping a beat (as she rarely does with her flawless feel for rhythm), she jumped into the hand clapping of "Water Fountain" while beaming out at the Dallas crowd. "Your city has an excellent sense of rhythm," Garbus commented, seconds before she belted out the first lines to the song.


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