Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014
Better than: Living in fear of the Pineapple Express.
An over-hyped bit of rain led to school closures and power outages across the Bay Area yesterday, but fortunately it didn't stop a great musician from delivering her attentive pupils an energetic storm of sounds that saturated the space inside Oakland's Fox Theater. Both acts had plenty of momentum at the tail end of a national tour, using eccentric performances and audience interaction to rouse the weather-weary crowd.
[jump] Cibo Matto means 'crazy food' in Italian, and the name is indicative of the way Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori concoct a recipe of genres and time periods into a full course meal that's been on the menu since 1994. Their music keeps time like a metronome and is delivered with mechanical flair, Honda conducting her Macbook and keyboard while Hatori dons shades and struts center stage with the microphone. Backed by a solid rhythm section of drums and slap-happy bass, their opening set performance bobbed on waves of funky electronica and chiptune soul. Down tempo break beats with over-arching synthesizer arrangements swirled in the background, while vocal styling reminiscent of early '90s hip-hop and R&B belied tongue-in-cheek lyrics that touched on taking showers in sugar water and knowing your chicken. The ladies were demure between songs, asking if everyone was surviving and thanking people for coming early to see them play.
tUnE-yArDs is the brainchild of Merrill Garbus, an artist recently described in this space as a “bona fide visionary.” Her talent at crafting music is readily apparent, and she employs it to weave a deceptively thin web of musical structure that you inherently groove to before you've even processed it. Along with bassist Nate Brenner, and supported by percussion and backing vocals, songs focus heavily on intricate rhythms and thickly-layered melodies; the band incorporates Afro-Cuban and West African drumming patters and song structures, presented by Garbus with ritualistic intensity.
Against a cloth backdrop covered in cartoonish eyeballs, cutouts, and an inflatable cactus, the headlining act began with the stage empty. Distant drumming and shouting from the back of the theater began to get people's attention. I headed in that direction until I saw the African dance troupe making their way through the main floor of the theater from the lobby. Beating skin drums, waving flags, and stomping down the Fox's terraces, they eventually paraded onto the stage, where they were joined by Garbus and co. After a frenetic flurry of drumming and dancing the troupe left the stage and tUnE-yArDs took over, getting the crowd clapping along to “Sink-O,” everyone involved in a forced march against convention: “Peace / Peace and Love / Love is waiting / For the feeling of discomfort to pass before killing.” Compression effects on Brenner's bass and the multitude of textures spilling out of bells, drums, and machines, coupled with the elaborate depth of sound created by singers in sync with one another, allowed for plenty of grooving in the audience.
The set was dynamic, as halfway through the supporting cast faded away, leaving Garbus and Brenner to share the stage with a ukulele and bass, respectively. This stripped down portion of the show was a nice departure from the sensory surplus, and felt like an informal jam or songwriting session like the ones that tUnE-yArDs was born out of. Garbus had lots of good things to say about Oakland and the Bay Area during the show, adding that “some of these songs were written here, so to come back and play them here is a big deal.” The energy in the building reached a fever pitch with “Water Fountain,” the most infectious track off of this year's Nikki Nack. After a brief interlude and encore, the house lights were up, and the cult of Merrill Garbus adjourned. Critic's Notebook:
-One dollar from everyone's ticket will be donated to charity, as part of tUnE yArDs' efforts to support clean water access around the world.
-This hometown stop was the third-to-last on this tUnE-yArDs tour, which continues in Portland tonight and will wrap up in Seattle on Saturday.