There’s certainly some buzz behind tUnE-yArDs at the moment. Merrill Garbus’ second album, the curiously-titled w h o k i l l, has been the recipient of almost universal praise and this manifests itself into a packed Whelan’s on Friday night. Thousands, the highly rated Bella Union band and support act on the night, are rendered almost inaudible by the crowd. This isn’t any indictment of them, but their brand of intricate melodies and delicate vocal harmonies never really succeed in breaking through the wall of noise brought on by the giddy anticipation of the audience. It’s plain to see that this is a tUnE-yArDs crowd and it isn’t long before they get what they want. Garbus comes to the stage shortly before 9.30pm and, for the next hour and 20 minutes, has the venue mesmerised.
Despite the collection of instruments at her disposal (a ukulele, two drums and various effects pedals), it’s notable that the most powerful element of tUnE-yArDs’ music remains Garbus’ incredibly powerful voice, which not only shows off her ability to hit any note in the vocal range but to do so in such a powerfully effective way. Opening with ‘Party Can’, containing the audience-friendly refrain “do you want to live?!”, and notably the only track not featured on a tUnE-yArDs record up to this point, the band soon dip into more familiar territory. ‘Gangsta’, one of the most vibrant tracks on w h o k i l l, is a particular standout, fusing Garbus’ vocals, loops and Nate Brenner’s bass into a carefully-fashioned patchwork of sound. ‘Powa’, ‘Fiya’ and, especially, ‘My Country’ also shine in the 13-song set. Amidst it all, Garbus seems to be having just as much fun as the crowd; a broad smile is never far from her lips and she even proclaims to the crowd that this is the best night of the tour.
Perhaps the main difference between listening to a tUnE-yArDs record and seeing them live is watching Garbus construct the vocal and percussion loops, which are omnipresent in her recorded material. The majority of her songs feature loops and delay effects but, on record, they’re already a fully-formed element of the song – in a live setting they have to be presented in real time. Watching Garbus create this sound, some several layers deep, acts as a sort of intro to the music that isn’t present on the albums and adds an entirely new musical dimension to an already engaging performance. Sometimes hype of the level of which has been bestowed upon tUnE-yArDs can be a severe detriment to a band, but you don’t get the impression that Garbus is even aware of it. Or, at least, she doesn’t let it bother her.
Photos: Alan Moore