Merrill Garbus, the mind behind Tune Yards, came to Exit/In Friday night and put on one of the best shows Nashville will see this year. But to understand the appeal of her widely heralded live show, you first need to wrap your head around her equipment setup.
Directly in front of Garbus is a board with enough switches and effect pedals to put the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to shame. It's resting on top of a rug with highways on it -- the type you'd see in a small child's room.
|So loud you can practically hear her through your monitor|
Surrounding her microphone stands are a pair of floor toms, a pair of snare drums, a Korg synthesizer, and a hi-hat with a tambourine on top. Oh, and also her signature ukelele, with black masking tape covering the sound hole under the strings. She never leaves home without it.
After stepping onstage and taking a moment to survey the scene, Garbus cuts loose into a wild session of vocal improvisation characterized by African-themed chants, whoops, and hollers. It's the opening strains of "Hatarai." The crowd doesn't quite know what it's in for yet. There's a rumble here. And then a rattle there. What has she got up her sleeve?
On the record, "Hatarai" features several vocal tracks layered and looped on top of one another. To replicate that live, she activates a switch which plays the backup vocal parts to play through the speakers, while Merrill herself sings lead. It's a technique that allows her to create much more sound than one person could reasonably expect to generate.
|The most iconic stringed instrument not named Lucille.|
The lush, dense arrangements of "Hatari" soon give way to "Do You Want to Live?," a song with an excellent call and response section designed to get the audience's mojo flowing.
Garbus's larger than life personality is written all over her latest record, w h o k i l l, but in a live setting there are many details in the music that are hard to appreciate strictly from hearing the record. Listen to a song like "Gangsta" on the album and you might think to yourself, "Wow, this song has an awesome bassline." Hear it live and you realize the song literally couldn't exist without the bassline.
Simiarly, the extended saxophone solo at the end of "Bizness" provides the perfect soundtrack for some AAA grade booty shaking. Another great live song is "Powa" which is relatively reigned in, at least by Tune Yards standards. The hard, driving chords cut through the gentle acoustic melody to remind you there's a raw emotional nerve being struck here. And when she cuts loose at the end of the song, it's really something else.
And of course, seeing her break out the synthesizer for "My Country" was also a unique treat.
But if you're going to talk about Merrill's many instruments, you can't leave out the ukelele. Not many people would think of the ukelele as an aggressive instrument, but the way Garbus plays it she may as well be Jimmy Page. The piercing blare that buzzes from her Fender amp nicely accents the acoustic picking typically heard throughout each song.
|Merrill Garbus implores you to groove to the beat.|
The set moved by at a brisk pace, lasting just over an hour. She presented herself to the crowd well, occasionally making brief chit chat and opening up about sometimes feeling self conscious over having videos of her performances uploaded to Youtube.
But make no mistake: Merrill was in command this night. By the end, nearly the entire crowd was grooving and getting down to the sound of the bass, sax, and the pounding rhythm of the drums. Tune Yards have established themselves as a legitimate creative force, and one of the top acts to visit Nashville in recent memory.
(Oh! I almost forgot Pat Jordache, the opener. The man who once shared a band with Merrill Garbus brought his own band to the stage and gave an admirable performance. Not unlike Tune Yards, they were heavily rhythm based, with a pair of percussionists, and Pat Jordache himself donning the bass guitar. The sound was light breezy indie rock, with frantic tremolo strumming, pretty melodic picking, and the deep soulful voice of Jordache himself. Bravo, I say!)