The Attenborough Centre lights dip, and Merrill Garbus’s face emerges into a soft spotlight from the pitch dark like a faintly glowing ember. “Woo woo!” she moans, ghostlike. A loop pedal turns her voice into a whirling mantra, onto which she gently paints several more spooky vocal layers before her band gently kicks into ‘Home’, a track from Tune-Yards’s new album.
‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’ is the fourth release from the California-based band, initially a solo outlet for the prolific and multi-talented Garbus. Her debut album ‘Bird-Brains’ was recorded in 2009 on a handheld voice recorder, mixed using a shareware programme and released on cassette. It doesn’t get more DIY than that. ‘Bird-Brains’ soon picked up word of mouth acclaim, eventually gaining a worldwide release through 4AD records. On each of the three subsequent Tune-Yards albums, Garbus’s ambition and confidence has grown. From the second album onwards she has been joined full time by bass player Nate Brenner, who now co-writes most of the music. He joins her onstage tonight, along with drummer Hamir Atwal.
Tune-Yards are well known for their electrifying live performances, and for tonight’s rare Brighton appearance, we share the excitement of the crowd, whose anticipation hangs heavy. ACCA is a lovely venue – but at a whopping £22 per ticket, the fact this gig has sold out is testament to the strong draw of this live act, and in particular the multi-talented Garbus. She strums a ukulele, operates loop pedals with her feet, presses buttons, alternates between several mics and hits pads on her effects console with a drum stick – all while singing extremely complicated staccato lyrics. It’s the modern equivalent of the one man band, and it’s initially rather daunting to watch, like a high-wire trapeze act. If she lost her concentration for a millisecond, where would she be?
Thankfully for us, though, Tune-Yards is more than just a novelty showcase of virtuoso multitasking – which could get boring very quick. These songs are extremely catchy, skewed pop creations with smart politically aware lyrics. Most of the set tonight is comprised of tracks from the new album, several of which deal with Garbus’s musings on white privilege – notably ‘Colonizer’ on which she sings about using “my white woman’s voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends.” Garbus may lyrically tend toward the almost comically verbose at times, yet in a live scenario the danceable melodies combine with her machine gun lyrical delivery to create a kind of harmony not always present on disc. Somehow it all seems to hang together quite beautifully in performance.
There is a pleasing urgency to tonight’s set – Garbus doesn’t talk to the audience much, and many of the songs segue together without even the chance for us to applaud. Midway through ‘Honesty’, though, she gives us an opportunity to calm down as floodlights bathe the audience in a sudden dazzling white and she invites everyone to meditate mid-song. “Close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Feel the sensations coursing through your body.” A sea of people obey her and stand swaying in silence. It’s all very West Coast, but that’s part of the fun.
On ‘Heart Attack’, a standout track from the new album, the audience sing some of the lyrics back at her, and she has a go at catching them on her mic and feeding them into her loop pedal, so we too become part of the backing track. Yet it’s a brace of songs from 2011’s breakthrough ‘Whokill’ album which really garner the night’s most rapturous response – in particular the encore opener ‘Bizness’ (made famous by its inclusion in ‘Orange Is The New Black’), which gets pretty much everyone in the room dancing.
“I love Brighton!” beams Garbus breathlessly just before the band kick into the closing track ‘Free.’ The audience cheer and stamp their feet. It’s been a great show. We can only hope Garbus and co won’t leave it too long before visiting us again.
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sunday 18th March 2018
Photos by Jon Southcoasting