With two sold-out shows and a line for the doors snaking down 14th Street, the demand for tUnE-yArDs far exceeded its supply.
The last time Merrill Garbus brought her wild stage show to D.C. in May, she was a rapidly rising star with her second album “w h o k i l l” drawing breathless reviews from critics, and the walls of the Red Palace were far too small for her exuberant live performance.
This time around, tUnE-yArDs swiftly sold out the Black Cat, as well as an earlier show added the same day.
At the club, fans before the late show talked about how they’d been at the first tUnE-yArDs shows, were Garbus’ first listeners, knew all the songs from her early projects, how they were the true tUnE-yArDs fans.
And tUnE-yArDs is a project that attracts a particular kind of rabid adoration from fans, whether for Garbus’s unhinged voice, fiercely personal lyrics or explosive live shows, where she uses an array of loop pedals to build her sound up from simple drumbeats and vocal lines into glorious choruses.
Pat Jordache, Merril Garbus’s former bandmate from her pre-tUnE-yArDs project Sister Suvi, opened both Black Cat shows.
Jordache played simple, straightforward guitar rock, and his expressive Morrissey-esque baritone was the only remarkable part of the otherwise unspectacular opening set.
Unfortunately, the set was absent of any of Sister Suvi’s excellent material, and, while Garbus expanded on the band’s freak-folk sound in her solo recordings, Jordache eschewed the band’s dissonance and complex ukulele work in favor of a more basic and ultimately forgettable sound.
Garbus came on stage, sporting her now-signature face paint that has become a necessary element of her music videos and her live shows, picked up a drumstick and began to construct her organic beat. On top, she layered dissonant loops of her expressive, yodeling vocals, piecing together her harmonies like a puzzle. While the crowd cheered her on, Garbus stepped on a few pedals and lurched into the rough ukulele strums of “Hatari.”
She was a force of nature on stage, bellowing and yelping as she brandished her fists, to the crowd’s delight.
She kept things upbeat and followed with new single “Gangsta,” and was joined on stage by her bassist and two saxophonists, who gave her police siren-imitating wails a groovy backbone.
For all the joyous noise streaming from the stage, the saxophone blasts and scattered drumbeats were always tightly controlled, faithfully recreating Garbus’s erratic-sounding recordings.
TUnE-yArDs were at the tail end of a long tour, and Garbus wearily joked about how the band was burning the candle at both ends.
The Black Cat show was their second-to-last show of the year, and as Garbus sang “I’ve gotta do right while my body’s tired, right?” during her restless rendition of “Es-So,” it was easy to believe her.
But her exhaustion didn’t show for a second, as she danced around the stage during the extended sax jams of rambunctious fan favorite “Bizness.”
Garbus’ ingenious instrumentation was on full display at the show, from her elaborate vocal parts to her dexterous ukelele playing to the array of percussion that punctuated her loops, which included a set made of beer bottles, pots attached to bass drums and strung-together shells.
The strongest moments in the show were the tension-laced builds before all of Garbus’s loops crashed down at once, the sonic equivalent of cresting a hill on a roller coaster.
Garbus was also blessed with a brilliant voice, and her heart-stopping vocal work was on full display at the show, especially her sublime Mariah Carey-style riff at the end of the slow-burning “Powa.”
She wrapped up the show with the playful “You Yes You” and returned to the stage after a few moments of crowd roars to close with her exuberant album opener “My Country.”
The show’s roadies and opening band lined up across the stage to form an impromptu drumline, with one guy even banging on his crutch with a drumstick, as Garbus emitted joyous wails at the front of the stage.
Silence fell as she sang the last line of the show, “The thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.”
Then with a mischievous smile and bow, she was gone, leaving the crowd utterly in awe of the idiosyncratic magic they’d just witnessed at Garbus’s hands.