Ruth Rosselson gives the lowdown on a show from Merrill Garbus, a big-voiced artist who exudes confidence on stage through her music, rather than her outfits or dancing
I first came across tUnE-yArDs when Merrill Garbus did a live session on Nemone’s 6Music Show last year after her first album release. I was so impressed by what I heard that I bought the album. I liked it so much that, earlier this year, I bought the second tUnE-yArDs album on the day of its release. Suffice to say that by the time I actually saw her live at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on 13 June, I was already a big fan.
Having never seen tUnE-yArDs live before, I was worried that perhaps my expectations were too high and I would be left disappointed. I needn’t have worried. From the first holler that left Garbus’s mouth I was utterly captivated and in awe of this amazing singer. It was obvious that the rest of the audience was similarly affected. Every song was met with rapturous applause. From a Manchester audience that can often be ‘too cool for school,’ that’s no mean feat.
For the uninitiated, Garbus’s unique selling point is her voice; her range, her power and how she uses technology to create layers of harmony and polyrhythms. Listening to her recorded work is one thing but seeing it being created live seems to enhance the impact. Almost every track begins with Merrill layering a percussive backing, with two single drums, or her voice – or both. This technique is often used by beat-boxers but the first woman I saw use it was KT Tunstall before she went stellar. Her modus operandi was to create pretty harmonies. Garbus’s harmonies mix with complicated rhythms to create something much more original than that.
The show begins with Garbus on stage alone, standing between two drums, with two microphones and her technology just out of sight by her feet. She creates a huge choral sound, filling the room with her primal yodelling, completely silencing the audience. It’s a powerful start. We don’t stay silent for long though. “Do you want to live?” she calls, “yeah?” “Yeah” we respond, getting down to the funky call and response. By the time she’s joined by her band-bass player and two sax players, we are all utterly in love with her.
Unlike the R&B queens, the opera divas or the over stylised pop stars, Merrill is a woman that I can both admire and identify with. She’s still coming to terms with selling out venues – the last time she played Manchester, there were only a few people in the audience – and her banter in between songs is refreshingly down-to-earth. Her vocal style borrows from punk, (Patti Smith comes to mind), soul and pop as well as traditional African singing. At the same time, she comes across as someone I’d love to go for a drink with. She’s also clearly having fun up there and we’re having fun with her.
I love beautiful female harmonies and Garbus does create these. But what I love more about her is that she has one of the most powerful and raw voices I’ve heard in a long time. There’s rage and anguish in some of her songs. There’s also funk, soul and punk too. In today’s pop world, there’s also something refreshing about a female artist who has such a big voice and who exudes so much confidence on stage, purely through her music, rather than through her outfits or her dancing. She’s in control, even when the technology lets her down on a couple of occasions.
Most of her set comes from her new album, Who Kill, with only a couple of songs from her first. I know these songs well but hearing them live, it’s like hearing them for the first time. As well as using the loop machine and drumsticks extremely skilfully, she also plays the ukulele, which adds a tinny tuneful guitar. The two saxophones and bass complete the sound.
During one of the songs, more participation is required. Typically Merrill, it’s not a pretty singalong that she’s after – it’s a primal roar and we’re happy to oblige. The sound nearly knocks me over. She’s impressed too. “I’m a new kinda woman” she sings on Killa during the encore. “I’m a don’t take shit from you kinda woman.” Staring straight at us, I don’t doubt it. She’s fierce, strong and extremely talented. It’s not an image we’re used to in today’s pop world, where it’s as if punk never happened. This woman is a role model who I think all teenage girls should see. I’m blown away.
Photo by maz.nu, shared under a Creative Commons Licence