Merrill Garbus, the woman who is for all intents and purposes tUnE-yArDs, stands alone centre stage, flanked by a floor tom and a snare with two microphones and a pedal board in front of her and begins to build a sound collage with her extraordinary voice, over a looped drum figure. Like a lost Amazonian tribeswoman, proudly defiant and erect, an effect heightened by the warpaint stripped across her face, she deploys her vocal gifts with great confidence, giving every impression of being in total control of her pitch and phrasing, while at the same time letting loose and being completely uninhibited in her expression. Perhaps that’s the kind of sureness of touch that comes with playing to a sold out Button Factory. Or maybe she always had it. What’s certain is that this songwriter, vocalist, percussionist and ukulele player, who has fused elements of acoustic folk, R&B, funk, Afro-pop and rock into a bold, uncompromising hybrid all her own, is coming into her own. This is her moment.
She’s soon joined by bassist (and sometime songwriting and producing collaborator) Nate Brenner and an alto saxophonist and a tenor saxophonist. The use of the loop pedal is a constant all evening, whether for laying down those tribal rhythms or layering those mesmerically contrasting vocals. Her voice as an instrument can one minute growl with an appropriated Afro-American grit, the next chime with a Laurie Anderson vocodered delay, via the more sonorous depths of the jazz Joni Mitchell. It’s an effect echoed in Brenner’s loose, fluid bass lines. The set up may be lo-fi, but it’s high concept.
Most of last year’s breakthrough W H O K I L L gets played, with ‘Bizness’, ‘Es-So’, ‘Riotriot’ and ‘Doorstep’ all coming off well, a funkiness revealed in live performance which doesn’t always come over on record. ‘Gangsta’ is the sing-along dance-along highpoint. ‘Fiya’, from 2009’s debut BiRd-BrAiNs, is emotionally cathartic, with its multi-referential “You are always on my mind” lyrical sample mindfully spanning the gamut from country to disco.
The encore to a feel-good evening of sometimes dark material is W H O K I L L opener ‘My Country’. I have a feeling we will be hearing lots more from the clever yet instinctual, self-possessed but self-deprecatory, Ms. Garbus.
Photos by Damien McGlynn.