By: Max Burke
November 20, 2011
The Neptune Theater, Seattle
It was Wednesday when a few friends and I decided to go to this Sunday concert. Beyond my recollection of the bizarre look of their name, and a vague memory of hearing the song “Gangsta” months before, I had no idea what was getting into. Indeed, it took me three days to figure out that the lead singer is a woman—the significance of which I will get to later. And in those three plus days, I only listened to maybe four of their songs primarily due to sheer laziness. Needless to say, I was truly going on a whim.
We arrived at the intimate Neptune Theater in time to see a somewhat forgettable opening act. After a little imbibing and socializing during the downtime between performances, we managed to find a spot close to the stage. Thank Science we did! Merrill Garbus—the force behind tUnE-yArDs—came out on stage to a thunderous applause. After a few timid “thank you”s to the crowd, she started out the set with a stunning a cappella performance. It’s hard to remember the last time I heard someone sing with such powerful range and diversity of voice. It was as if someone mixed the tender aspects of Aretha Franklin with the punk ferocity of Joe Strummer of The Clash. Amazingly, the singing wasn’t even the most impressive part of the performance. As she wowed us with her vocals, Garbus began recording live loops of her voice, her drums, her ukulele and even crowd chants. The song slowly grew right before our eyes. Soon two saxaphonists and a bassist—who also slapped on Coke cans and trashcan lids—stepped in to provide even further depth to the sound.
Much like the rich layers of loops and instrumentation, Garbus provided us listeners with of a broad range of topics. Racism, patriotism (or lack thereof), physical appearance, and love are all up for grabs. Of course it can be difficult to pick up on the messages when one finds himself incessantly dancing to an infectious blend of rock, R&B, funk and Afrobeat. It’s not all dancing though; tUnE-yArDs know how create a good slow-burner as well. The beautiful “Powa” had everyone swaying. Given the energy of the musicianship, intensity of the lyrics, and the face paint, it shocks one to realize how timid Garbus seems. Between songs, she’s bashfully gracious to the crowd. And what a fucking great crowd it was! It was not only animated and booming, but also respectfully quiet when the songs would slow down. One fan was so happy she screamed: “Can we keep you?”
My friends and I left the show in elated, surprised by what we had stumbled upon, and eager for more. The best endorsement came from a hip-hop loving, non-alternative-music-listening friend who happened to be working security at the show: “That was sick!” My only hope is that tUnE-yArDs’s performance at Coachella is that they are awarded an equally intimate setting (i.e. a tent) as that of The Neptune. Another great crowd would be nice too. Even without these wishes fulfilled, Garbus and company will undoubtedly put on another mind-blowing performance.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/26529454″>tUnE-yArDs @ Pier 54 (River Rocks) 7.14.2011</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jamayaphoto”>Jessica Amaya</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>