“I have learned to love every person who comes to a show these days. You may not know me. You might not like me. But I love you for being here.”
I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s pretty much what Merrill Garbus told us as Wednesday night’s show drew to a close. It was just the validation I needed, as I had struggled that night to pull myself out of post-Covid hermit-mode. Pre-Covid, I would make plans to fly for two concerts, then fly to a conference elsewhere the next morning. At the time, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Looking back, it sounds like a nightmare. I learned to appreciate the calm in my life when everything shut down. I saved money. I got more sleep. And there was no possibility of FOMO, because there was nothing to miss.
Now, the pendulum has swung the other way. The flood gates have opened, and we’re making up for lost time, meaning the FOMO is back, and it’s in direct conflict with my post-Covid efforts to avoid cramming events like before. The Tune-Yards show at Delmar Hall was very nearly a casualty of this tension, but I reminded myself to support artists, especially when passing through our fair city, which is too often treated as a drive-over as well as fly-over zone. Even more especially when it’s the kick-off show for a national tour. The instant I saw Merrill saunter across the stage, I knew I had made the right choice. She bent and stretched, swirling her hips like a hula hooper missing their hoop. Looking up at her, bathed in blue light like a maniacal Smurf with a Day-Glo grin, I instantly felt I was in the right place, returning to the right mindspace.
Tune-Yards—the team of Garbus and Nate Brenner—were joined on this tour by drummer Hamir Atwal, who hung onto Garbus’ every move and responded with precision, smiling ear to ear from start to finish. His kit seemed tweaked to sound more electronic: bass drum like a drum pad, and a warped cymbal sounding extra curt and clattery. Brenner and Garbus both channeled a Devo feel in their industrial jumpsuits, adding to Brenner’s robotic-sounding basslines.
In the course of more than ten years, Tune-Yards has compiled a generous catalog from which to sample, and we were treated to a fairly even selection from everything from WHOKILL to sketchy., beginning with a surprisingly venue-wide chorus of “Peace/ Peace and love/ Love is waiting/ For the feeling of discomfort to pass before killing” from Nikki Nack’s “Sink-O.”
See, St. Louis and Tune-Yards are in a long-term relationship, as Garbus explained. The audience was able to fill the gap when she tried to recall the site of her first performance in St. Louis (Answer: 2010 at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center) and offered a few more memories, including Off Broadway in 2011 (I was there—outside, kicking myself for not buying a ticket to the sold-out show) and The Ready Room in 2014 and 2018. Now playing the larger Delmar Hall (which she rightly said we should feel lucky to have in our city), Garbus attributes this progression to a local DJ (also lucky for us) playing their cassette on air after that Lemp show.
As a result of our history together, St. Louis fans are both expected and perfectly capable of more audience participation than your standard arm-waving and hand-clapping. In a deconstructed version of “Real Thing,” we filled in Garbus’ backing “Oh no!” vocals on her cue, on an off-beat, and I was impressed at how well we pulled it off. In “hold yourself.,” our collective voice sang Garbus’ harmony in three different phrases “We all have doubts/ We all have rage/ We all have trouble being brave” with a dissonant variation in the third. Tune-Yards attracts some enthusiastic and capable music nerds, and we jumped at any chance to participate in the creation of a glorious resonance along with the band.
Garbus has talked about the importance of her acapella training in building layers of harmony. It is a delight to both watch and hear this happen in person. The piercing clarity of her powerful voice is like the squeeze of something acidic over a rich meal, zinging through the complexity of sounds. The curiosity of watching her create backing vocals for herself, loop after loop, one note in a chorus-of-self at a time, feels like being behind the scenes, learning how the pieces are put together to create a final, polished, intricate package. Sometimes you get so lost in the song as it develops that you forget a nugget built at the start of the song until she pulls it out of her back pocket at the bridge. It’s a thrill and an educational experience at the same time.
No way I could choose a favorite selection of the evening, but I can say “Look at Your Hands” got the crowd dancing, “hypnotized” provided some of the lushest melodies, “Bizness” was an audience-requested wish we were granted in a second encore song, and “Water Fountain” concluded with Garbus tapping in one final, expertly-timed “Woohaw!” to the crowd’s triumphant applause.
Not to be missed is the socially conscious message Tune-Yards keeps at the forefront of their music. It’s embedded in the lyrics for songs we all sang together, such as “Ain’t never move to my hood/ ‘Cause danger is crawling out the wood” in WHOKILL’s “Gangsta.” We all leaned a little extra weight into “If you cannot hear a woman/ Then how can you write her song?” in “nowhere, man,” and Garbus threw in an extra shout about making laws about her body. But it’s also laced throughout her banter. She talked about the nine American Indian tribes who inhabited the St. Louis region until forcibly removed in 1830. She talked about the Bramble Cay melomys, the first mammal species gone extinct due to anthropogenic climate change. Some over-achieving reader might want to send the band a flower arrangement in loving memory. Just a suggestion.
I recently read a passage in Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer that stuck with me, where a character realizes, “Every inch of life’s purpose was to find love, freedom, and your people. To embrace your own weirdness and other folks’ wildness.” This show brought that sentiment to life. It was an inspiring exercise in the equity everyone should enjoy and this greater purpose for our lives—a chorus of distinct voices brought together in harmony under a banner of creative personal expression. Voices unfurl. Hearts open. Smiles abound. I was thankful I did the right thing that night. Really, it’s always the right choice to support musicians in the hard work they do to bring us together. And you should fear missing out on this one. Tune-Yards is at the top of their game, and they tapped into a kinetic energy that’s been lying in wait for too long. | Courtney Dowdall
Tune-Yards on tour:
06.04 | Do Division Street Fest | Chicago, IL
06.05 | Empty Bottle| Chicago, IL
06.07 | Fine Line Music Café | Minneapolis, MN
06.08 | Majestic Theatre |Madison, WI
06.10 | El Club | Detroit, MI
06.11 | Mr. Small’s Theatre | Millvale, PA
06.13 | The Sinclair | Cambridge, MA
06.15 | Brooklyn Steel | Brooklyn, NY
06.16 | 9:30 Club | Washington, DC
06.18 | Union Transfer | Philadelphia, PA
08.18-21 | Green Man Festival 2022 | Brecon, United Kingdom
08.23 | Gorilla | Manchester, United Kingdom
08.24 | Summerhall | Edinburgh, United Kingdom