Merrill Garbus' notes were not only high but textured and animated, with an almost mathematical use of vocal loops and unchartered rhythms. Garbus is a professional noisemaker, her voice takes on personaes according to its fickle mood -- she is Aretha Franklin, Bjork and Little Scream all at once, building audible collages with loop pedals and drums, backed by two saxophonists and an electric bass, making all of her layers handcrafted.
tUnE-YaRdS began the night with with "Gangsta," off her latest record w h o k i l l via 4AD, outfitted in hot-pink tulle shoulders, face paint and danging fabric necklaces. This is all play for her. Her powerhouse vocals begin by emulating ambulance sirens, altering their course from whispers to shouts in an unpredictable rhythm that the audience studies to catch up with. This is how most of her songs begin. She creates them as she goes, with, first, sound effects, harmonizing with herself until the sound swells to a breaking point, when the layers subside and she leaves you with a lingering tone -- often held for 30 seconds or more, to rousing cheers from the audience.
By her second song, "Es-So," the room reached unbearable temperatures, and the crowd began wiping brows in between clever lines from Garbus: "I gotta do right if my body's tight, right?" This track moves to a waltz pace, slow enough for a hip-hop sway, to indecipherably sweet sounds that aren't quite words but cascading syllables. When she sings, "Kakaka, kokoko," we begin to understand her music to be more than nonsensical baby-speak. It's a visceral experience dependent entirely on sounds. This continued on the next song, "Powa," a sultry, slow jazz tempo that widens into a full-bellied second verse that invites a gorgeous breakdown, building into fierce volumes and holding notes long after the crowd could whistle and holler for more. She responded, "Now that I hit that note, can I get some whiskey?"
She continued with a frantic dance, switching from shrills to delicate whispers; with primitive yodelling and African soul -- her voice is elastic, taking us through genres both made up and borrowed. Each harmony had a sophistocated nuance, not quite on the beat but used as foreshadowing to be used at a later time.
After "Bizness," an audience member shouted, "You're the best thing since …" and another filled in, "ever!" She graciously accepted and asked the audience members to tell her about themselves as she took some time to breathe. She then went on to say she has a dream job, flirtatiously thanking the audience for letting her have it. Then, Garbus suggested a 200-person group hug post-show. Crowd members warned that it might get a little sweaty, to which she assured them, "You think you're sweaty? I haven't washed this dress all tour!"
What was palpable as the temperature rose in the room was that this was a celebratory show. She seemed more unrestrained than ever, finely tuned after honing her craft on the road -- a well-oiled vocal machine that was prepared to shed whatever residual energy that remained in order to leave it all there for us in that room. She returned after a rowdy demand for an encore, to which she jokingly responded, "We had nowhere else to go except for the ladies' bathroom."