Near the end of tUnE-YarDs’ set last night at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, Merrill Garbus thanked the nearly sold-out crowd for coming out on the night before Thanksgiving.
“I feel like everyone I bumped into on the street or in the store today, I was like ‘Happy Holidays,’ and they were like ‘Ugh, I’m just trying to get through it,’” she related. “But if you feel that way, just remember to give something to somebody else, and it’ll make you feel really good.”
Indeed, through a lively, adventurous hometown set that closed out her long tour, Garbus gave, and gave, and gave. Reliant on intricate looping—a process Garbus has mastered, and that’s a marvel to watch live—tUnE-YarDs’ layered songs demand vocal gymnastics, polyrhythmic prowess and precise fingerpicking. Yet underpinning all this complexity is a contagious strain of outright jubilance, and her shows are a joyful, holy-rolling cleanse for those bogged down by the lamely accepted idea that “happy music” means Katy Perry and little else.
In other words, although her music is complex, a simple statement like “give something to somebody else and it’ll make you feel really good” could effectively serve as tUnE-YarDs’ operating motto. It certainly did last night.
Heavy on material from this year’s w h o k i l l, the set began with Garbus’ “Do You Wanna Live?!” (a song more commanding of a response than any you’ll hear all year) and ended with a pile of balloons dumped onto the crowd while her three-piece band was joined by openers Pat Jordache in a mass pounding of drums.
The experience gained on this year’s rigorous touring schedule showed its colors in dramatic reworkings of album tracks; “Bizness” enjoyed an extended free-jazz outro, as did “My Country,” and other songs erupted in surprise deviations and arrangements.
A new song the band performed sounded essentially like a B-side to w h o k i l l, and it showed that no matter how creative the performer, there’s only so much one can do with a setup of bass, horns, drums and ukelele. “This is the last show this ukelele will ever play,” Garbus quipped—but she was dissing the instrument’s ability to stay in tune, not announcing a reworked instrumentation for her next album.
But after this tour, who can imagine what’s in store next for tUnE-YarDs? What if Garbus’ next step is looping a Fender Rhodes, a bass clarinet, a Casio and a standup bass, and singing her brilliant songs backwards through a pedal that adds octaves and sound effects of oil rigs and hydraulic pumps? What if she managed to take all that and make it accessible, and catchy, and danceable? If anyone could pull it off, it’d be Garbus.