Sunday, December 18, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: tUnE-yArDs at San Francisco's Regency Ballroom (11-23)


tUnE-yArDs is one of those acts that seems to be constantly getting tagged with statements regarding how good their live performance is. And it's no surprise really, considering frontwoman Merrill Garbus's background actually busking in subway stations and working as a puppeteer. But what exactly does a "good live performance" entail with this project? Before I get into that let me step back a little.

My experience getting into tUnE-yArDs was among the quickest I've fallen in love with an artist upon discovering their music. Admittedly, I slept on BiRd-BrAiNs back when that came out in 2009, so my first exposure to the project was the first track to drop from this year's w h o k i l l, "Bizness". It wasn't long after I heard that song that the album starting streaming on NPR, and I remember when I first headed over to listen to it I had the gut feeling that I was really going to love it. Sure enough, after not even two tracks in I was already looking up tour dates, and like a total affirmation of my newfound fandom there was a date in my area just over a week away. Within a day or two I had my ticket and plans all set to go. It felt slightly impulsive, but even more so it felt like it just needed to happen.

Needless to say, I fell in love with that show pretty easily. But a small part of me knew that some of that euphoria was stemming from the timing of it all, just the fact that everything came together so perfectly in such a short period of time. So, when this show came around I was particularly interested to see how my level of enjoyment would compare to that of the first one. I didn't expect much about the performance itself to be different; the two dates were bookends of the same tour, so the material would be basically the same. Sure, spending a lot of time on the road can take its toll, but I was anticipating more change from within myself than from the artist. Seven months had passed between the two concerts, during which I hadn't been listening to tUnE-yArDs nearly as obsessively as I had been in that initial stage. In a way, I was getting an opportunity to form a much more representative opinion on the group's performance.

The show took place at The Regency Ballroom, one of the few major all ages venues in San Francisco I'd somehow never been to prior to this night, even though I've been to quite a few shows in the city over the years. It turned out to be nice; the sound is great, and the size and layout are very reasonable, so it wasn't hard to get up to the front (where I generally prefer to be). I arrived in time to see the opening act, Pat Jordache, but I'll skip trying to talk about them because quite frankly they didn't leave much of an impression on me at all.

When tUnE-yArDs started their set it became quickly apparent that they hadn't lost their momentum. The energy, the personality, the power: they were all still there with little signs of wear and tear. And nothing about the band's setup had really changed. Merrill Garbus without question is the driving force of the performance, manning not only the vocals but also percussion and ukelele. Equipped with a slew of loop pedals, Garbus manages to build the entire percussive backbone off of drum samples recorded on-the-spot. Her ukelele factors in a certain sense of sonic uniqueness that a guitar never could. The vocals serve as the real attention grabber though; whether she sports her signature androgynous war cry or its softer more vulnerable counterpart, it's always certain that she sings with an undeniable sense of power. Her accompaniment was also as powerful as ever. Bassist Nate Brenner added some of the the year's most driving and complementary basslines to w h o k i l l, and their presence live is no less apparent. The cherry on top is the two saxophonists, whose colorful and idiosyncratic lines provide the finishing touch of eccentricity. If you'd like some help visualizing all of this check out the session video I posted a little while back.

The set was opened with an unreleased song that I can only assume to be titled "Do You Wanna Live?", which I believe had been opening every show of the tour. It's placement definitely wasn't without good reason; I'd be hard pressed to find a much more appropriate way to really announce the performance. Beginning with only drums to back her up, Merrill bellows "do you wanna live?!", to which the crowd screams "yeah!" in a sort of call-and-response fashion. With each reply the energy seems to grow, and when the full band finally comes in, the atmosphere explodes with liveliness. The band proceeded to play the majority of w h o k i l l throughout the course of the show, including highlights like "Gangsta", "Powa", and of course "Bizness". BiRd-BrAiNs was mostly underrepresented, but "Fiya" did get it's time to shine at the end. The setlist wasn't much different from what I saw back in April, but I did get to experience a new song, a relatively long yet mostly rewarding exercise in many of the ideas presented on w h o k i l l.

At the very least, this show proved to me that as long as I have any interest in tUnE-yArDs' music, there's a heck of a lot of enjoyment to get out of their live show. I can go on and on about how great I think it is, but in truth it can never compare to actually witnessing exactly how well everything comes together. Simply put, Garbus just has a knack for establishing a connection with her crowd like little other performers out there right now. Even in the face of a slight blunder creating one of the drum loops that was to open one of the songs, Merrill shrugged it off with an ever so endearing sense of humility. "Someone recently asked me if I ever make any mistakes live," she said. "Well, now you know." It's this kind of interaction that pronounces tUnE-yArDs' refusal to feel removed from the audience, and simultaneously, their dedication to be an act that isn't afraid to really bring them in on the fun.


  1. Funny you should mention that "Do You Wanna Live?" was the opener for the tour. Saw them in London a few months a go and it was either the last or second last song!

  2. Oh hmm well I guess they didn't open every set with it. I assumed because they opened with it at the show I went to in April, which was the first show of the tour.