Monday, April 21, 2014
Better than: Performances with less eye-glitter.
If one measure of an album is the way its songs go over live, we should all be very excited for Nikki Nack, the next full-length from Oakland art-pop project tUnE-yArDs. Last night at the Chapel, the band fed a solid helping of its latest material to a room full of people who mostly hadn't heard it before. It was tUnE-yArDs' first live show in more than a year, with Merrill Garbus, Nate Brenner, and three new band members decked out in festive, colorful, slightly cartoonish outfits. (Garbus herself looked like a split-personality superhero, with a body suit that was part aqua green fabric, part red latex, and mostly gold lamé.) And the show was free, thanks to Converse's Rubber Tracks studio project -- though it didn't need to be.
The first song of the set, "Manchild," began with a strange, rap-like part -- a heavy beat with Garbus talking in a narrow melody. But as soon as her voice began to open up last night, with Garbus and her three singers issuing a siren-like "I've got something to say," the room responded. Dancing began, and didn't end until more than an hour later. The spare funk of "Manchild" gave way to the somewhat more pop-friendly "Hey Life," which feels (as several of the new songs do) sort of like a tUnE-yArDs twist on classic R&B. The song fell away for a breakdown, leaving near-silence as Garbus, joined by three other voices, sang-counted gorgeously back up to a climax, and the crowd shouted approvingly.
With each new song, you could feel the audience get its head slowly around the odd beat- and vocal-timing and eventually fall hard into the groove, even when the band tried to keep it elusive. Most of the new material is very, very rhythmic, and sounded even more so live, with Garbus' floor toms and loop pedals backed by a full-on percussionist. At times this led to pretty spirited movement out on the packed floor of the Chapel: A big part of "Stop That Man" was just a doubled-up drum beat, like some kind of abrasive tribal techno, that had Garbus, her bandmates, and a good part of the room bouncing up and down like sugar-high toddlers.
It wasn't all new stuff -- they gave us "Powa" and "Gangsta" and of course "Bizness" as well, and those elicited even more elation and movement from the crowd, as expected. But it seems a safe bet that the Nikki Nack songs are going to bowl over rooms on tUnE-yArDs' upcoming tour, given their strength and the sense of possession with which people regard this band. Early on, they got to "Real Thing," a kind of smoldering rap/R&B tune -- Garbus rhyming at immense speed, with a smeary synth-bass line doing nosedives over a flickering beat. At its start last night, the room seemed adrift, with Garbus nearly shouting about debt, slaves, hearing her name in Timbuktu. Huh? But when Brenner's bassline hit, it roped things together -- you heard shouts and cheers as the audience sensed the overpowering intent of the rhythm and fell into it, giving themselves over to its heft. A lot of people are going to have that same experience over the next few months, and they're damn lucky for it.
Time of Dark
Stop That Man
Wait For a Minute
Real Live Flesh