Tune-Yards at First Avenue, 7/17/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo By Tony Nelson
with Dosh
First Avenue, Minneapolis
July 17, 2014

In April of 2010, an artist going by the name Tune-Yards presented an exuberant, frenzied set of loops and vaguely tribal-sounding percussive elements for those either informed enough or bored enough to wander into The Cave that particular evening. This "student-run nightclub," as described by the Carleton College website, hid in the shadows of a coffee shop on its Northfield, MN campus. Merrill Garbus stood upon its tiny stage, layering seemingly incidental scraps of beats and melodies into songs. She whispered to us comfortingly, then unleashed a torrent of shrill wails.

Piling five-deep into a ride back to Minneapolis, our Garbus-fueled state of sonic inebriation refused to lessen its grip. We were her hostages still.

Last night, Tune-Yards sold out First Avenue. A tepid sea of admirers stirred before Garbus. "Lord, Jesus, where did y'all come from?," she asked from the stage, in disbelief at its mass. Her question met an approving roar. "There's sold out," she continued, "and then there's sold out."

See Also: Slideshow: Tune-Yards at First Avenue, 7/17/14

Today, Tune-Yards is a collaborative effort between Garbus and bassist/keyboard/synth player, Nate Brennard. They were joined last night by two back-up singers and a second percussionist. Rather than feeling gratuitous, these additions served to amplify the core duo's performance. A pinkish hue illuminated their calculated movements, hands moving mathematically above keyboards and drums. Behind them, eyes on the backdrop watched as limbs began to loosen.

People were dancing. Fashionable couples with Uptown condos and designer jeans were dancing. Older men in Hawaiian shirts were dancing. Hipsters were dancing. A guy with a closely-shaved mohawk was dancing. Everyone was dancing to this kaleidoscopic innovation, many with closed eyes or hands held up above them as if at worship. Music this appealing to such an all-encompassing variety of demographics doesn't seem to happen often these days.

Admittedly, local media outlets like the Current must assume some responsibility for the presence of such a fan base in Minneapolis. The station had kept Tune-Yards on constant rotation for some time now. Garbus even paused to graciously thank the Current for their support during one of her short and somewhat scripted moments of on-stage banter, a comment that drew cheers.

Photos By Tony Nelson

Most songs required a bit of architecture before the group could begin them in earnest. This process was fascinating to watch. Garbus casually banged down a couple times, recording the initial drum loop. Quickly, she added additional loops one on top of the other. Vocals were prepared in a similar manner, one looped note, word or verse becoming several layers of itself sung in different registers. Sometimes it was clear what particular song these fragmented pieces were being manipulated for. Other times the endgame was not so clear. Several songs in, Garbus emitted a couple shrill tones into the microphone. As the tones played back, she mimicked them in a different key. In this case, we knew what was coming.

Heads were suddenly thrown back, mouths stretched in an "O." The siren increased in volume, propelling the group into the opening verses of "Gangsta." Garbus pointed one drumstick menacingly towards the audience as she lectured, "Never move to my hood, 'cause danger is crawlin' out the wood." While discussing this song in interviews, she is quick to name Brennard as its co-writer. For a year, "Gangsta" existed only when they chose to play it live. Garbus found translating its original, entirely improvised form into a language appropriate for recording difficult. Brennard was able to manipulate the raw material into something they both felt fit onto Whokill, Tune-Yards' second full-length.

Fans continued to scream their way through another chorus, some still mimicking the sirens while others joined in Garbus's chant. Unexpectedly, she broke into a vigorous drum solo. Then we bore witness to a more playful Garbus. While the rest of the stage remained silent, she pulled her microphone close and recorded a couple of adorably baby-voiced, off-key squeaks and shrieks. The loops continued to play back. She kept drumming along until each of the others had joined her once again, jumping exaggeratedly up and down to the beat as the song finally reached a sweet crescendo which was met by thunderous applause and shouts of approval.

Interestingly, Garbus chose to immediately follow this crowd-pleasing hit with a grouping of songs from 2009's BiRd-BrAiNz. This debut album was recorded almost entirely by Garbus alone on a digital tape recorder, its tracks mixed with GarageBand. There is no soap-opera fog between the listener and the artist, no auto-tune involved. The recordings sound almost vintage, as if they were made before mixing and mastering became such a sly form of trickery. The album captures an informed joyride through a world of influences ranging from folk to Afrobeat and even reggae.

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