tUnE-yArDs @ The Haunt, Brighton 21.06.11
She is an accomplished, electric, performer. She stands out front like a tribal queen, an arc of drums and pedals arrayed before her, and builds her songs afresh each time. She writes and constructs her music in front of us, starting with a rhythm clicked out on the rim of her drum which is looped and repeated and manipulated and added to, vocalisations used as percussive rather than melodic elements, parps of brass and skipping lines of guitar looped and woven into the mesh in their turn, until there is an utterly thrilling web of noise pulsating on the stage. It’s a pretty remarkable thing to witness. It gets the place bouncing; at one point Merrill and her band and the whole crowd hop up and down in sheer synchronised delight like Masai warriors. She makes the crowd sing out a simple repeated phrase; she builds us into it all as if we were another instrument. She works the communal thrum until every being in the place is buzzed-up with shared joy. No time for irritation, no space for getting tired of the yodelly schtick: it’s all about the heartbeat.
Cleverness is definitely a turn-on. Lack of botheredness about seeming cool is too. Being a savvy female musician, who clearly knows exactly what she is doing, who is deeply, geekily, competent and in control of the sound she is making, a conductor of and for magic: that totally rocks. Merrill Garbus shares this, and a kind of particular weird ordinariness, with Kristin Hersh (and, incidentally, with the pedal-head women in Braids, who look like wide-eyed junior English teachers and play like goddesses); unglitzy to the bone but deeply extraordinary – because this isn’t how pop stars are meant to be. They shouldn’t look or act or sing like this. They shouldn’t be this untrammelled, this peculiar! Where’s the rock? Where’s the roll? – and thus are quite the most intense performers imaginable.
So tUnE-yArDs do the bizness. I win. Maybe one day they will come close to the impossible goal of pinning down a moment in recorded form but for now THESE are the ur-version of the songs. THESE are their platonic ideal. No need for foreknowledge when the music comes to life in your gut, no need for ghosts when things are this alive. This is moment-by-moment ineffable specificity: there’ll never be this again. This is unique. This is now. This is here. This is mine.
And next time I listen to w h o k i l l, I’ll also be hearing the whoops of that night, the memory of her socks and her audience and her grin boosting the digital signal and turning up the colours to full saturation.