On Friday the 10th of April, tUnE-yArDs brought their Nikki Nack tour to Houston for a full-length show after their short appearance at last year’s Free Press Summer Festival. With this being the penultimate tour date (San Antonio’s Maverick Festival being the last) and the last U.S. club show (for a while), Houston was in for a special time.
tUnE-yArDs is the music project of New England-native Merrill Garbus that is also composed of Nate Brenner on bass and synths. When touring, tUnE-yArDs includes Dani Markham on drums and Moira Smiley and Haley Dekle on vocals. Started in 2009 by Garbus, the project quickly rose to notoriety for its usage of intricate looping and layering of instruments, distinct vocals, and powerful lyrics. Garbus’ albums, BiRd-BrAiNs, w h o k i l l, and Nikki Nack, have been widely lauded by critics and established Garbus as a musical innovator.
Opening for tUnE-yArDs on this tour was Ryan Lott’s music project Son Lux which graced the stage promptly at 9 PM. Houston wasn’t new to the sounds of this post-rock band, and those who were, quickly became enamored with Lott’s charismatic smile and banter spread throughout the 45-minute set.
The band dove into their set with Change is Everything: a track from their upcoming album Bones, out June 23. The band started with a soft, playful electronic sound but by the second song, Easy, the mood quickly turned strangely sexy as the first notes were played and followed by a brass section loop filling the room as Lott’s voice sultrily repeated the song’s title in between verses. As songs changed, I felt less like I was in a heavy-petting scene from Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’m not saying is a bad thing at all. Just hear the first half of Easy, and you will understand my sentiment. Son Lux brought spectators into a true immersing experience through their set by drawing us in with electronic beats interrupted by punk guitar solos as the guitarist screamed, “COME ON, HOUSTON!!!”
The eclectic set was warmly praised with intermittent applause after the crowd didn’t know when a song ended because of the band’s usage of silence in between a song to introduce a final chorus, but when the crowd learned when the song had ended, they took that chance to fully convey their love for the set by cheering and even having a girl scream, “GOOD JOB, EVERYBODY!” which led to Lott laughing in gratitude and winning my heart along with Houston’s.
At 10:25, tUnE-yArDs took the stage in colorful garments and accessories in front of an eye-covered backdrop (hold your tongues, conspiracy theorists).
The set opened with Time of Dark, from their latest album, and this gave the crowd an idea of what the show would be like: a fun, artsy, intricate show that isn’t like any other. The chemistry and synchronization between the band members brings life and color to the show. Markham’s drum playing is synchronized with Garbus’ all while staying on beat to Garbus’ intricate drum loops playing in the background all while having to recite the lyrics. Yes, you might be thinking, Diego, that’s what happens in a show. They have to be synchronized. Yes, I agree, but this show was different. It wasn’t the usual formulaic approach to a live show. If shows were math, tUnE-yArDs would be a triple integration problem working in three dimensions, while other shows are a y=mx+b graph where everything is two-dimensional and lacking depth.
When the band began playing Gangsta as the third song of the night, the crowd went crazy. Gangsta is one of tUnE-yArDs most popular and beloved songs, so it’s no surprise the crowd was cheering and emulating siren sounds alongside Garbus. As the show progressed, the crowd loved the set more and more. When Powa was performed, Houston was exposed to Garbus’ vocal abilities by effortlessly hitting high notes during the song’s bridge and get a closer look at the on-the-spot loops as she hit her drums repeatedly making three drum loops syncing all of them with vocal and ukulele loops. These were activated accordingly throughout the song to create a masterpiece of complex musical ingenuity.
As mentioned above, tUnE-yArDs is known for their powerful lyrics, and this was evident when they sang songs like Real Thing. With lyrics like “You can’t hold tight to what you have ’cause there is nothing left to grab” showing a constant theme of consumerism and tangibility that is seen in Garbus’ work, “I come from a land of slaves. Let’s go Redskins! Let’s go Braves! You want the truth in tomes? Dig this dirt and sift out the bones” commenting on the United State’s shameful past of a slave-driven economy and the constant usage of controversial stereotypes being seen today, Garbus’ lyricism mastermind is shown. The song then focus on self-image and the message women get in the media: “Red, white, blue course through my veins. Binge ‘n purge the USA. Why are you afraid about pants size ten? They’re chosen girls–while you worry about dress size 6, they’re winning the tricks /// Ugly one, be you, who you are.” Corporations’ tricks work to manipulate girls into trying to become thinner, and then receive mixed signals by telling them to be themselves by others. tUnE-yArDs voices powerful opinions through musical accompaniment to be heard by masses, and that’s the beauty of the project. This isn’t a band singing about drinking in a club or about falling in love–no. This is a band that comments on social issues in almost pop way, and it’s truly refreshing to hear and see.
When Bizness started, one of the band’s biggest hit from their second album, Garbus began looping a series of claps that had the crowd clapping along but proved to be too rhythmically complex as everyone seemed to have gone their own route quickly filling the room with discordant claps that made Garbus stop and playfully laugh at the crowd’s attempt to keep up. Also, can I hold a quick moment of silence to appreciate Dani Markham’s vocalization to emulate the sequence of notes from the beginning of the song? Any of you that watched The Fifth Element and the iconic operatic performance of the blue alien remember how her voice quickly changes pitches and ranges on the latter half of her performance? That’s what I’ll use to compare Markham’s vocalization. It was an amazing feat to witness. Just listen to the first 15 seconds of Bizness and then imagine someone flawlessly emulating those notes. Your imagination should have made your jaw drop because of how amazing is is for someone to do that, if it didn’t, try again because you did this whole exercise wrong or your imagination is broken.
The night closed with Water Fountain with Garbus explaining that $1 from each of the tickets sold throughout the tour would be donated to the foundation she started called The Water Fountain. The Water Fountain is a fund established “with earnings from [their] latest album, including portions of ticket sales from U.S. shows and related music licensing (i.e. [their] songs in movies, TV shows, and ads)” to distribute proceeds to nonprofits such as Community Water Center, Partners in Health, and Gulf Restoration Network who deal in water-conservation issues “as they relate to protection and conservation, climate change, and health and women’s issues.” After the introduction, the song started and the crowd drank every second of it, as it is one of their biggest hits from their latest album. The crowd sang along screaming some of the song’s most notable lyrics like “I saved up all my pennies, and I gave them to this special guy. When he had enough of them he bought himself a cherry pie. He gave me a dollar–a blood-soaked dollar–I cannot get the spot out, but it’s ok, it still works in the store.” This sort of playful, yet powerful imagery in the lyrics is what tUnE-yArDs is about. They spread meaningful messages and powerful imagery with saccharine beats and almost child-like analogies.
The band goes offstage and comes back for an encore being welcomed back by loud cheering from an adoring crowd. The cheering goes on for quite some time that Garbus has to stop trying to play and say just how much all of the cheering means to her. The look on her face is of total awe and appreciation towards Houston’s loving reception. The night closes with Left Behind as the encore.
Overall, tUnE-yArDs is a band that puts on an incredible artistic show that surpasses any preconceived expectations fans might have. Their approach to music is refreshing and comes from an honest, humble place. Merrill Garbus has quickly made herself an innovator in music and is quickly making her way up to icon status. The next time you can catch tUnE-yArDs on tour is unknown as she told me that “this is the last club show in a very long time.” But when they do come back to the stage, you can be assured that it is going to be one of the greatest shows you have witnessed.
If you wanted to know the setlist from the night, here it is (The “thanks for coming back + back” line Merrill wrote at the top refers to me seeing them for 7 times in Texas) (Lowkey maybe highkey bragging):
By Diego Bermejo