St. Vincent/ tUnE-yArDs
Live at Central Park Summerstage
Sunday, August 1st, 2010
“We’re going to hop up and down on the count of four. It’s not too hot today, we can do it!” yelled Merrill Garbus, beaming behind turquoise war-paint. As she spoke, her singing was heard also in the form repeating ululations you might describe as tribal yodeling, captured live just a few seconds earlier and now triggered by a foot pedal. This freed her up to do a bit of crowd direction. At four she hopped, most everyone did. Those layered loops—beats caught and duplicated, the click of a drumstick against the mic stand, hoots and hollers laid four deep—are what make Garbus’ solo sets as tUnE-yArDs seem so full. Playing for much of this show with only a bassist, she could still sound like an African choir with a full line of drummers. When her band swelled to a seven-piece, real live drummers added tangible heft to the compositions, and a skronky horn section upped the funk quotient on the numbers that leaned towards R & B. Really though, with her outsized charisma and miraculously versatile voice, the old set-up of a floor tom and a ukulele is perfectly sufficient. All of the men behind her had a smear of the blue-green paint on one cheek, like they’d hugged Merrill for luck before sending her out there and her markings had partially rubbed off on them. Her boundless enthusiasm certainly rubbed off on everyone else.
After a prolonged set-up befitting the mini-orchestra she brought with her, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark took to Central Park’s Summerstage. She looked impossibly delicate as always, like someone might stop the show at any time to offer her a jacket. Of course, that impression dissipates quickly when she’s furiously punching feedback out of her guitar. The band’s set was only furious in bits though, mainly towards the end when they got to more active, nervous songs like “Marrow” or “Black Rainbow” from last year’s Actor. You often see a new band gone big-time and think, “Gee, this would really make more sense in a sweaty little basement.” St. Vincent is the exact opposite, with Clark’s elegant voice and her band’s sophisticated, jazz-lite arrangements a perfect score for an overcast metropolis. Seeing her on a dive bar stage now would be totally weird, like watching an exotic bird swoop in, touch down, order a drink. For the occasion, her touring band was supplemented by expanded horn and string sections, the versatility allowing them to ably handle a tricky song like “The Neighbors,” which she announced as a live debut. Like everything else played, it was upscale, exceedingly pretty, and actually sort of dull. The diverse crowd was ever appreciative, though never hopping or anything close. The sort of event where you’d look over to see the loudmouth kid who was just heckling the sound guy (to his credit, the bass was a little loud in the mix) passing a joint over the VIP barrier to an Upper West Side cougar. The music was just part of a pervasively pleasant park afternoon.
Photos by Devon Banks