Going into any concert you should expect some music, but what you can only hope for is a performance. This past Thursday at Cat’s Cradle tUnE-yArDs put on a performance to be remembered.
The night started slow, with the crooning voice and melodic electric guitar of James Tillman, who provided a very slow warm-up to the blazing performance yet to come. Tillman’s set was enjoyable, though it felt a little empty, as he was lacking his usual backing band. A great deal of the potential charm was lost due to the chatty audience, most likely a result of the hype surrounding the main act.
Though tUnE-yArDs was originally the solo project of Merrill Garbus, it has evolved into something much larger. The addition of permanent bassist Nate Brenner, percussionist Dani Markham, and vocalists Jo Lampert and Abigail Nessen-Bengson bring the touring band up to 5 members. While Garbus is still the centerpiece of the act, each of the other members contributes a great deal of energy and skill to the show as a whole. Markham is a classically trained percussionist displaying her versatility often throughout the performance. Both backing vocalists come from a theater background, their acting abilities shining through in several short visual skits that occurred between songs.
Most songs start in a similar way, with a crescendo of looping percussion and vocals from Garbus building up to the start each song. What feels like a massive charging process is then followed by the powerful and sudden discharge of energy in the form of Garbus’ leading vocals and the addition of the backing members. Garbus’ voice is impressive, consistently overflowing with a level of heart, soul, and raw power that is only attainable in such a tightly packed live setting. Perfectly complimenting her strong melodies were the booming drums and other Haitian inspired percussive elements that were featured heavily on most songs from her recent album Nicki-Nack. The smooth electric bass from Brenner, along with the ukulele featured more prominently on their previous album, Whokill, provided a pleasant juxtaposition between songs throughout the show.
None of the songs performed that night were duds, each charged both lyrically and emotionally in their own way, but several stood out, especially from their album versions. The highlight of the night for me was Real Thing which boasts powerful lyrics, only amplified by the sight of Garbus as she belts them out. Garbus has stated in her Nicki-Nack album commentary that this song features her most vulnerable lyric “Glory, glory, it’s good to be me”, something different from her previous songs which she says are often about disliking herself or seeing her flaws. Hearing that live and seeing the happiness on Garbus’ face as she sang that line cemented it as my favorite of the night. My other favorites included the sing-along inducing Gangsta and the rhythmically hypnotic Water Fountain.
Garbus’ banter between songs was minimal, other than when a slight delay occurred due to Lampert falling on stage during one of the skits, knocking over some drums and retreating backstage with the other touring members to ensure she was okay. Garbus initially tried and failed to start the next song, dropping a microphone during the building loop. Taking it in stride she commented “I fucked up… to trick you into thinking I’m not a genius ”, and successfully got going the second time around. The touring members returned soon thereafter, none the worse for wear with Lampert exhibiting the same energy she had before her fall.
Overall, the performance was above and beyond anything I could have expected. The power behind the vocals and percussion left me stunned for the remainder of the night and listening to their albums again just isn’t the same. Trust that if tUnE-yArDs ever comes back to the Triangle, I’ll be there early to get the best view possible.
Hope to see you there.
– William the Conqueror