By Maud Deitch
The Music Box
Better than…that one time in college. You were just experimenting.
Within moments of her opening number last night, it was impossible not to be consumed by tune-YarDs, aka Merrill Garbus. She seemed to inhabit every inch of her body, and to have the ability to produce sound from every crevice, organ, limb and inch of skin.
To see her build layer upon layer of growls, screams and cries, to pound out heartbeats and chant her hooks like a preacher, is to see a dervish possessed, simultaneously alarming and liberating.
Midway through her set, she called that night's second opener Cut Chemist on stage to join her for her most recognizable tune, “Gangsta.” Before they started, she said, “Cut Chemist changed everything about what I thought music could be.”
If that's the case — and I say this having sat through both sets last night — Garbus took what Cut Chemist taught her and blew them out of the water.
The audience reacted to Garbus like she was bringing them out of the dark and into the light. The skinny, mousy, be-spectacled kid behind me pogo-ed relentlessly through her set, and screamed — really, truly screamed — so loud between songs that he seemed to genuinely hope she would hear him and respond.
Each one of her songs can be turned into an anthem, and her audience needed no prompting. They knew just when to stomp wildly, scream alongside her and sing out her lyrics of personal liberation with perfect harmony.
The percussive, driving nature of her songs sometimes veered into Paul Simon territory, even, and her showmanship reminded me at times of someone as huge and consuming as Bono. These are not comparisons I had expected to make, and even more unexpected was when my friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Mariah Carey.”
Garbus deftly undertakes and competently completes runs that would fit in perfectly on Butterfly. It's the fact, though, that she pares these vocal acrobatics with grunts and groans so painfully human that took me from being simply surprised to being moved.
As plumes of blue-grey smoke settled in a layer above her head and Garbus bowed her head and laid down her ukulele for the night, the audience panted and stared up at her smiling, as though they'd just seen what's possible, as if freedom is a loop pedal and a microphone. As much as I'm a skeptic, I have to say I looked up at her too in something like awe, because she had done for me what she claimed Cut Chemist had for her: changed what I thought music could be.
Personal Bias: I tend to distrust musicians who take liberties with English grammar when capitalizing and punctuating their names or album titles.
The Crowd: KCRW listeners, upstanding yuppie types whose bosses don't know they went to Burning Man this summer (they came back so tan!), girls who look just like Merrill Garbus, earnest frat boys trying to impress their pretty dates, men in sandals.
Random Notebook Dump: All of a sudden it was like everyone in there was smoking weed and it smelled exactly like a party in a dorm room in college.
Set list below.
Real Live Flesh
You Yes You
Do you Want to Live?