Review: tUnE-yArDs with James Tillman at The Jefferson Theater, 10-17-14

Tickets provided to author courtesy of the Jefferson.

When you walk into a tUnE-yArDs show, you expect a little abnormality. After all, the band prides itself in weaving bold statements with playfully polished indie-pop, and of course, sort of a vibrant, out-there aesthetic. The crowd is alive, fidgeting with anticipation, and the stage set, adorned with bright fabrics and large eyes, promises to deliver the weirdness.

The night’s show opens with James Tillman, a DC native, whose dulcet tones and mellow charisma give meaning back to the word “crooner.” His adorably bashful stage presence and slow serenade provide a perfect foil for tUnE-yArDs. With a nigh unbelievable vocal range and a sweet guitar, his playing is no less than melodic. Tillman plays songs off of his new EP, Shangri La, as well as an Earth-stopping cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” Tillman’s music tugs at your heart, but seems an odd choice as an opener for tUnE-yArDs. Energy seems to drop in the room, but tUnE-yArDs has little problem pulling the crowd back up from the moment they appeared.

Merrill Garbus commands a stage, let me tell you. From her fish-scaled dress to her powerhouse voice, to the steady, calculated ease with which she arranges her tracks, you can’t help but feel a little intimidated. She stares straight ahead, her eyes almost inhumanly widened, a sort of alien goddess backed by four high-energy band mates and her sea of felt eyes.

The crowd, however, is engaged despite the lack of eye contact, clear from their painted faces to their dancing bodies, clapping out rhythms hurried and off-beat with excitement. “The machine will tell us the truth,” Garbus assures us between tracks, as she loops a vocal rhythm into the eaves of the Jefferson.

Her voice is smooth, but anything but honeyed, closer to a fierce, ariose shouting. It’s clear she is a proud, confident woman who appreciates her band but steals the show. She sings, dances, drums, ukuleles, keyboards. She could do the whole thing herself, she seems to imply, and she’s well within her rights to say so.

Mid-show, spotlit on stage left, she sings with no accompaniment. “I’m the…” she pauses. The crowd’s voices fill in the next line, but she waits a full measure before finishing, “…real thing.” Garbus reminds us that she’s here, commands our attention, insists we realize we’re standing inches or feet or yards away from a woman whose stage presence is rivaled only by her musicality.

To their credit, too, the rest of the band has no less personality. The singers sport Freida Kahloed eyebrows and large, stylized eyes on their costumes, staring and dancing their hands for the crowd. The drummer is a wild woman, beating on a slapdash of rhythm instruments that are more drum circle than rock band. The male bassist is the least imposing, perhaps self-aware of the feminist vibes the dynamic women surrounding him give off.

Somehow, tUnE-yArDs seamlessly captures tracks off of all three of their albums. Garbus patiently sets up her loop pedal for each song, substituting live vocalizations for what must have been prerecorded soundbites in her studio songs, whether singing bizarre, electronic noises for “Sink-O” or by rousing the crowd to emulate the siren in “Gangsta.” It’s almost shocking how perfectly she is able to not only recreate, but elevate the experience of listening to her albums at home, a testament to how little production is actually in her music. The music is well-coordinated, and animated and haphazard as it may seem, there’s no doubt it’s a carefully formulated cacophony, loosened only slightly in live performance.

A performance by tUnE-yArDs is more than just aural engagement. It’s a visual assault, a thudding, soul-wrenching experience. It’s an homage to she-warrior power and self-confidence. But more than anything, it’s an awful lot of fun.

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