May 12, 2011
Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto
A friend of mine, who I saw for a fleeting second at the end of last night’s TuneYards show, just emailed me to ask me what I thought. My response, verbatim, was: “FUCKING HELL YEAH OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD YEAH BABY YEAH WOOOOOOOOOOOO!” What follows is an only slightly more measured response.
TuneYards is Merrill Garbus.
Merrill Garbus, on the other hand, is Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Miriam Makeba, Bjork, Owen Pallett, Terminator X and Ani DiFranco all rolled up into one. And despite that roll call, Merrill Garbus sounds like nobody else you’ve ever heard in your life. Not even all those other yodelling ukulele players who are into African music. (There must be a few out there somewhere.)
I’d seen her previous band, Sister Suvi, on two occasions, and it was a curious, creative combo that only hinted at what Garbus would later do. I’ve spent a lot of time with the two TuneYards records, 2009’s BirdBrains and 2011’s Whokill, and loved them both; the latter in particular is flawless, joyous and viscerally exciting (and you need to own it immediately). Yet all that still didn’t prepare me for what Garbus does live these days.
I’ve seen performers use loop pedals before—who hasn’t? The list of people who use them inventively is increasingly rare; too often, it’s a crutch for a solo performer who can’t afford to bring a band on the road with them. We’ve all seen people painstaking create their symphonies of sound one or two bars at a time. Colour me impressed—once.
Garbus, on the other hand, creates massive, yodelling choirs while seemingly sustaining a single note; it appears as if she’s looping one or two seconds at a time while you don’t even notice. The same approach applies to her drumming, which is not just a couple of floor toms and a snare in front of her, but the click of drumsticks and the clank of hitting the mic stand. And yet despite all this careful construction, she’s still very much fronting a live band—a bassist and two horn players, each amazing and perfectly complementary—who stop and start on cue, wait for pregnant pauses and follow her wherever she goes when the pedals are turned off and it’s just her and her ukulele.
But the technique is for the academic chin-strokers at the back of the venue (or the front row, which is really the only place you could properly see the not-so-towering Garbus at work). Garbus’s appeal is far from technical. It’s animal, primal, sexual, all about release. It’s all id. That was evident from every corner of the venue, whether you could see her hands at work or not.
Just as refreshing as her performance was seeing the sold-out audience dive right in with her. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the Horseshoe roar like it did last night, and not just at the end of songs, but at every astounding trick Garbus pulled out of her hat mid-song—like the stratospheric high notes she hits at the end of the pseudo-R&B jam “Powa,” the kind that could even make Prince jealous.
The look on her own face suggested she was as lost in the music as the rest of us: holy crap, is this happening? Though fully in control and bristling with the necessary confidence to pull this all off, she still looks like she’s discovering all of this for the first time, with open-eyed awe and joy and humility, surrendering to greater forces than we understand. Of course, unlike the rest of us schleps, Garbus is no naïf: she’s somehow capable of controlling the gods and commanding them to dance both for and with us. How does she do it? Who cares? The world is a better place with Merrill Garbus in it.
In other words: FUCKING HELL YEAH OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD YEAH BABY YEAH WOOOOOOOOOOOO!