There's really only one word to describe the tUnE-yArDs show after leaving the crowded, hot Mr. Smalls on Tuesday night: strange. And that's not a bad thing; the word "strange" isn't inherently negative, and definitely isn't in this context. But the fact remains that this was, above all, a weird show.
The night began at 8 on the dot with the opener. New Jersey natives Delicate Steve started with a piercing guitar solo, which eventually evolved into a rock-meets-Vampire-Weekend-meets-Local-Natives sound, except with very little lyrics. The result was at least engaging enough to work with the infrequent singing, and drummer Mike Duncan provided a stable, varied backbone of a beat for his fellow musicians to build on.
Once hitting the stage, tUnE-yArDs singer Merrill Garbus didn't hesitate to make an impact, belting out a string of loud, ear-splitting lines. Ms. Garbus looped her vocals, creating a layered choir of her own voices tinged with an African influence.
The other fixture of the group, bassist Nate Brenner, appeared as Ms. Garbus began playing a simple beat on a snare and a deep, almost bass-like drum. Ever the multi-instrumentalist, she then looped the beat in order to play a ukulele as she challenged the crowd, screaming "Do you want to live?" (to which the crowd emphatically answered "Yeah!").
And then, the song was over. The whole spectacle was a little bizarre, and it wasn't about to get normal any time soon, but the performance was at least fun -- especially to those dancing toward the middle and the front of the crowd. In fact, the movement was so spirited that it caused the experimental singer to exclaim later in the show "There's been more dancing tonight than there has been in a long time!"
With this tour (stylized as the "w h o k i l l tour" after the album of the same name), there is a deviation from the tUnE-yArDs norm: the addition of a two-man saxophone section. And in Tuesday night's show, the added sound provided a very palpable effect on the music as a whole. For instance, the saxes provided a bombastic, blaring quality on "Gangsta," an intense, still somewhat African-flavored song. The long track allowed for solos of the different instruments -- not just the saxophones, but also parts with just the drums or just Ms. Garbus' loud, effective vocals.
As the concert went on, it was tough to get a grasp on the tUnE-yArDs sound: some songs had the distinctive African quality, while others featured a funky groove or a
strongly syncopated drum beat composed only of rim shots. Maybe, after all, that is the tUnE-yArDs sound -- a conglomerate of unexpected, spontaneous sounds strung together with Ms. Garbus' musicianship.
The ability to loop sections of the song, like her own vocals or drum beats, has given her the ability to front just two band-members (or four, if the saxophone section remains permanent). More than that, being the main creative force has bestowed upon her almost entirely free reign when it comes to what she plays and how she wants to play it. Her style of singing can be accosting, at times, but it's also unlike almost anything else out there. And people have noticed -- her latest release found its way onto a number of year-end top albums lists. It's nice to think that a band can break into the music business without having to conform, and can be recognized for being experimentally brave.
Elliot Alpern: email@example.com