This past Sunday, on what was possibly the hottest day in the history of the chilly canyon known as Stern Grove, Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind tUnE-yArDs, took over the summertime festival in a muu-muu that made her look a little like Mrs. Roper. (For their part, her bandmates looked as though they could be extras from the Magnetic Zeroes.)
The 36-year-old Garbus is well-regarded for producing spontaneous drum loops and layering eerie harmonics over lo-fi tribal beats. After three albums, it’s clear that her artistic aspirations are exceeding the bounds of her earlier work. Combined with a social justice bent, Sunday’s show hinted at a likely career trajectory: prodigious output at the margins of the mainstream and a devoted fan base.
The opening act, it should be mentioned, was Dahkabrahka, a rather approachable Ukrainian folk quartet known for wearing large, Cossack-style hats. The group pulled off frictionless transitions between drumming circles with catchy, na-na-na choruses to what sounded like all-female Japanese hip-hop, with a good dose of unclassifiable (but melodious) art-rock and scat as the connective tissue. If you had a birthday that day, the group would eagerly sing out your name while volunteers wearing red balloons shuttled through the crowd soliciting donations. Few people were probably expecting to wear shorts and sweat so hard all afternoon, but the mood was buoyant.
Opening with “Time of Dark,” tUnE-yArDs segued into “Hey Life,” a song with a great bassline that sounds a little like Marina and the Diamonds, except suitable for a daytime performance. Her facility with teasing the crowd into a froth shone through on “Gangsta,” when Garbus stopped and started, toying with the audience. “Peace and Love” turned into Dee-Lite by way of M.I.A., morphing into a sort of bangla breakdown. As a rule, tUnE-yArDs songs have discernible climaxes where every band member smacks their sticks over their heads in sync, repeating the chorus, before coming to an abrupt halt. (All the choreography — such as it is — is drumstick-based, and effervescent.)
Prior to this appearance at the Stern Grove Festival, the band had just come from playing Red Rocks while on tour with Death Cab, and the spiritual connection between that remote locale and the fact that it was Sunday wasn’t lost on Garbus.
“Whatever your religious or spiritual point of view, my friend talks about Sundays as a Sabbath when you slow down a bit,” she said before launching into a plug for a non-profit that deals with water issues, in true Lisa Simpson style. The encore, “Bizness,” with its repeated lyrics “Don’t take my life away/ Don’t take my life away” could have any number of meanings in a contemporary America, but like the weird-yet-approachable David Byrne, Merrill Garbus never lets go of her enigmatic side. We know her politics, but they’re always subordinate to the aesthetics.
When I first saw tUnE-yArDs in 2012 (as the opener for St. Vincent), I remember Garbus’ voice being less mature, and the difference in timbre over three years is striking. When, in rare moments, she got way into the upper register, it elicited heavy applause. As the long set ran on, she sounded smokier and rawer around the edges until she was unmistakably singing hipster art-rock in an African-American idiom. But she never lost that spontaneity that endears her to her fans.