Performance diary: tUnE-yArDs at American Songbook

February 12, 2012

Every musical education is necessarily idiosyncratic. Watching Merrill Garbus’s ebullient performance at the Allen Room with her band tUnE-yArDs, I had fun tracking the pieces of my own listening history that allowed me to even begin to comprehend her startling, wildly original musical attack. The first time I heard someone use looping to create a rhythm track was in the fall of 1980, when Laurie Anderson started performing “O Superman” (ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha) — now any number of solo performers have pedals at their feet and keyboards at their fingertips to conjure a digital orchestra. Garbus has a particularly goofy yet precise way of building tracks using her voice, a tomtom, a snare drum, and a high-hat with a tambourine parked on top of it. The additive principles of her compositions/arrangements remind me a lot of gamelan music, which I first heard at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 but didn’t really understand until I started playing with a gamelan myself a couple of years ago. And the long-lined polyrhythms churned out by the rest of her band — bassist Nate Brenner and saxophonists Noah Bernstein-Hanley and Matt Nelson — unmistakeably refer to the Afro-beat sounds of Fela Kuti, whose music I heard for years but never really grasped until I saw Bill T. Jones’s dazzling stage musical Fela! That’s a pretty unorthodox lineage for a singer-songwriter, n’est-ce pas? Garbus is pretty ostentatious about her performance-art background and kooky self-presentation — she took to the stage with yellow and black stripes painted on her face and led the audience through mini-workshop exercises in communal toning and “breath of fire” in and amidst performing tracks from her breakthrough album w h o k i l l (especially exhilarating renditions of “Bizness” and “Gangsta”). She’s definitely one of the more eccentric entries in Lincoln Center’s enterprising American Songbook series.

At the end of the show, she invited ticketholders to join her outside in Columbus Circle, where some of her faithful tUnE-yArDs army assisted her in creating a tongue-in-cheek political/spiritual ritual wrapping the statue of Christopher Columbus with yellow-and-black-striped police tape only custom-designed to say “Occupy.”  Fun!

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