Please go see Tune-Yards. You will be glad you did.
Everything about this show probably should have been terrible. Tune-Yards sound like a layered studio project rather than a live act and there’s no way those vocals can be replicated live. I hadn’t heard of Delicate Steve so I tried a few songs on Spotify; they’re overly complicated and don’t appeal to the ears. Yet I went anyway. I knew enough about Tune-Yards to take the risk. They seemed pretty good on the Coachella videos and if they could manage to match their album performance for the song “Bizness” the night would be a success.
But instead of being a fun diversion on a Monday night, both bands completely blew away every expectation I had and came across as some of the most energetic, captivating live musicians I have ever witnessed.
The opener, Delicate Steve, deserves a very warm mention before jumping into the Tune-Yards set. They’re a band from New Jersey with a very layered and electronic style on record. However, as they entered the stage they came as a five person band: two guitars, drums, bass, and an electronics operator. And this live-band setup drastically transformed their sound. Songs like “Butterfly” stopped feeling so cold and isolated and became organic. The guitar playing was exceptional and a staple to every song; most of the band’s songs did not feature singing and the warm tone from the lead Stratocaster served as a lyrical centerpiece.
The two key points to Delicate Steve’s performance were their drummer and exceptional energy. The drummer propelled their otherwise exploratory songs and gave them direction. His complex-yet-digestible rhythms made every song incredibly dancable (something the crowd took advantage of throughout their set). Meanwhile, the energy of every member was simply infectious. Their genuine appreciation for the crowd was very clear and they translated that into their demanding, impressive instrumental parts. I can’t say that I’d recommend regularly listening to Delicate Steve, but they’re worth a shot if you can see them live.
And then there’s Tune-Yards. They’re a complex mish-mash of afro-beat rhythms, ukulele playing, saxophones, and crazed vocals. Their albums are the meticulous work of Tune-Yards leader Merrill Garbus, so I was concerned how this would translate to a smooth, entertaining performance. Luckily, the use of (not actually gimmicky, more on that shortly) vocal and drum looping gave the full-band and full chorus sound found on the records.
But this live version was more raw. You got to see the sounds looped and built from the ground up, something could have come across as cheesy but instead added to the immediacy and intensity. In person, Garbus’ vocals were even more astonishing. Yes, they were recorded, layered and fed back, but the explosion of sound still came from that woman. And the tone, ferocity, range, and sheer power are all more evident when blasted at you from just a few yards away. The remarkable singing from whokill and Bird-Brains survived the translation to the stage in perfect condition.
The whole set was a relentless attack of rhythm and vocals, but the ultimate highlight was a jaw-dropping rendition of “Gangsta.” While “Bizness” is still a better song, the low tones of the drums and bass push “Gangsta” into a territory that few live songs can manage to hold. In album form, about 45 seconds in the vocals cut out and the instruments blast back in. In live form, this causes the entire crowd to elevate and physically share in the raucous sound from the band. The power and immediacy of the song make it a perfect live event and something that stands with“Idioteque,” “Doin’ the Cockroach” and St. Vincent’s crowd-surfing “Krokodil” as one of the most remarkable musical performances I’ve ever witnessed.
Tune-Yards isn’t for everybody. Their music is (admittedly) fairly odd and doesn’t appeal to all ears. But if you’re remotely interested in complex rhythms and exceptional female vocals, they’re a group you can’t afford to miss. Their stage presence, instrumental ability, and songwriting strength all make their live effort an unforgettable experience. Go see them on tour now.