By David Courtright; photo by Michael Koenig
I was surprised when I heard indie darling tUnE-yArDs was playing at The Basement, considering where someone of her stature would usually play in town. I was, therefore, not surprised when the show quickly sold out, and for good reason. Merrill Garbus, the New England brain-child and songwriter for the tUnE-yArDs project, is surely a force to be reckoned with. Using intricate vocal and drum loops, electric ukulele, and a live bassist and horn section, Garbus crafts songs of a wild intensity, polyrhyhtmic and at any moment threatening to spin out of control.
Her opening band was a boisterous boyish pop foursome, whose lead singer seemed to groan rather than sing into the microphone. The drummer had some crazy safari pants on, which really only added to their zany, percussive energy. They were a good primer for the virtuosity that followed.
tUnE-yArDs set up their own stage on the stage itself — a collapsible 18-inch platform that Garbus covered with a rug most children grow up with in their nursery; the cartoon town with all the winding roads for the Hot Wheels. Garbus deals heavily in irony — it’s omnipresent in her music, despite how personal and affecting her lyrics can be. There’s always an undercurrent with her where you wonder if her sincerity is a by-product of the honesty and ferocity of the music, or if it’s simply and affectation, a well-drawn satire of society itself. However you draw it, experiencing the music live is nothing short of revelatory. To see her build these enormous songs from such disparate and seemingly sparse ingredients is to witness a performer at the top of her game, doing something entirely profound and entirely her own. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly “Bizness,” a single off her latest, critically-lauded full-length w h o k i l l. Her horn section — an alto and tenor sax — started off the song with a dueling cascade of notes, then the drums slowly kicked in as she built the loops, and by the end, the entire sold-out crowd was in the air, bouncing up and down with her. A riveting performance — start to finish — from one of the year’s most intriguing and talented new artists.