By Andrew Hall | 12 May 2011
Merrill Garbus introduced herself at the Crocodile Cafe by simply saying, “I only wear this dress for sold-out shows.” Over the course of the next seventy minutes or so, she demonstrated her love for the capacity audience through direct praise and near-perfect performances of the best songs from both BiRd-BrAiNs (2009) and this year’s stellar w h o k i l l, making obvious how she bowled over audiences well before this one.
Though there were other people onstage (the current tUnE-yArDs live set is augmented by two saxophonists and a bassist who added auxiliary percussion) and there were opening acts (I missed Thousands, but Buke & Gass’ homemade instrumental sound and aggressive back-and-forths were infinitely more playful than they seemed when I saw them open for Efterklang last September), this was unquestionably Garbus’ show. She opened with a song performed solo, and regardless of how impressive it was to watch her construct drum loops in real-time before tearing through her song on ukulele, even more impressive was a moment, toward the song’s end, when the power of her voice was suddenly and undeniably made real. As she got the capacity crowd to sing along, she kept going and held her last note as the entire room lost the energy to continue doing so, leaving us as stunned as she possibly could having been on stage for less than four minutes.
From there, it was more or less as expected. The early material sounded far more fleshed out and approachable when freed from the enclosures of Garbus’ dictaphone, and the new songs sounded every bit as muscular and daring on stage as they do on record. The unconventional ensemble brought “Bizness” and the the album’s other aggressive numbers to life in such a way that makes having two dedicated horn players playing the same horn seem not just appropriate but necessary, and Garbus’ Afropop-inspired ukulele playing never came across as trite or cloying.
When she finally got to album closer “Killa,” the audience cheered as she sang, “I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t take shit from you kind of woman.” The best song from her debut, “Fiya,” immediately resonated just as hard. She took two encores, and by the end of the night had said as many nice things about us as an audience as everyone I spoke to about her performance said about her afterward.
It’s hard to say much more than “she completely and totally killed it.” Garbus crafted a record full of vitality and energy and proved on stage that not for a second was any of its power a put-on, something many performers ultimately can’t demonstrate. And it’s hard to imagine that she won’t be playing them in venues at least two or three times this size within a year or two.