Live music can be life affirming. It’s rare. Sometimes the only thing I remember from a live show is how much my hips and lower back hurt from standing in one place, or how much I had to drink in order to bob, somewhat appreciatively, to a beat. Then there’s Dead Audience Syndrome, or worse, “We’re Cerebrally Contemplating The Value of This Music” Audience Syndrome. But the tUnE-yArDs show at Hudson River Park’s River Rocks Festival could not be more simply, essentially different. Last night’s show will be filed away as absolutely one of my life-affirmers, one of those rare demonstrations of humanity, audience and performer all-in-it-togetherness. Because when a majority of the audience is jumping under a full moon, ecstatically drunk on the setting sun and the intricacy of Merrill Garbus’ thrilling beats and howls, well, that’s when you know someone’s doing something right. If you want, just take this away: It’s what it’s fucking all about.
A lone Merrill Garbus, or tUnE-yArDs, came onstage as the sky transitioned from blistering pink to a cloudless indigo, and she instructed the massive crowd to appreciate the full moon. Just two years ago, Merrill Garbus had recorded an album alone on a handheld digital recorder, using not much more than aggregation of kids’ conversations, looped, syncopated beats, a baritone ukulele, and her own wild, guttural vocals. Together, Bird Brains still was a collection of pop songs, but they came with a Nina Simone-like vocal fortitude and fierce, unapologetic joy for loud rhythms and stranger sounds that are simply fun to make. Garbus’ latest album, w h o k i l l, dealt us another explosion of un-self-conscious artistry, this time more cleanly produced, but also upped the ante in terms of Garbus’ already impressive technical skills (the lady is a looping genius) and unique, confrontational (but wholly engaging) sound.
Over the course of her set, the musical expressions of Merrill Garbus ran the gamut from loud and powerful, breathy and sweet, to a hot, cheek-burning sort of sexy. She pressed the pedals with her bare feet and added acoustic reverb by singing into the sound hole of her ukulele. For “Bizness,” a single off her latest album, her bass player hit a DIY marimba of Coke, Heineken and Sierra Nevada bottles duct-taped to a music stand, as two other accompanists built pulsing sax snorts into tUnE-yArDs’ wall of sound. Another impressive feat: On the album, what sounds like a digital manipulation of a hooting aria on “Hatari” isn’t digital, or cut or punched in at all—it’s straight-up, continuous Garbus. And when she loops complex beats on the snare, the audience actually audibly “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed.” At one point, Garbus asks the crowd, “Will you sing one note, thousands of people?” And they do, and hold it, sustained. Do you know how difficult it is to get strangers to make noise? Just ask any yoga teacher who tries desperately to get the class to use that “vibrational breath.” Maybe Merrill Garbus should teach yoga. No, nevermind. She should definitely keep doing what she’s doing.
Merrill Garbus is not afraid to make sounds that resemble midtown traffic, nor is she afraid to enjoy herself onstage, to deliver that joy to an intimidatingly large group of strangers. It’s that sensual and skilled celebration of the present moment (and not a half-hearted, affected imitation of the past, nor a half-hearted, affected imitation of what we’ve been guessing about the future) that seems both poignant and musically relevant. Generation Y can feel as rootless and displaced as ever in a post-post-modern world, or whatever you feel like calling current anomie and ambiguity, but great music has a way of rallying people in a time, in art—a cultural home, maybe. And as tUnE-yArDs ends her set, as the fireworks behind the pier begin to pummel the sky above the water, I am left echoing the lyrics in my head of perhaps one of Garbus’ most beautiful, most fingerpickingly complex uke-driven songs, “Fiya.”
“I am not beautiful! I am not beautiful!
I am in bloom as the world goes underground.
I am not beautiful! I am not magic yet!
But I am in bloom at the end of the world.”
Last night, Merrill Garbus was in bloom at the end of the world, or at least where New York ends and the Hudson begins. And as the audience slowly stumbled out of the pier, giddy, open and dazed, I can’t help but feel like we had the chance to share it with her.
Photo and video by Sam Polcer