“I almost cry at every show these days,” laughs Merrill Garbus, tearing up as she reaches the end of the first night of her mini-residency here at Electric Brixton.
You can’t blame Garbus: the level of affection radiating toward her from the crowd would be enough to make Miss Trunchbull blub. Couple that with a gruelling festival schedule and it’s no surprise that the New Englander is feeling slightly delirious.
She’s also put quite a shift in. As you’d expect from the percussion-heavy and intensely rhythmic tUnE-yArDs, there are more drums on stage than you can shake a stick at and Garbus has spent the whole night pummelling the life out of them.
Pulling out the stops with opener ‘Left Behind’, which is practically three songs in one, Garbus’s vocal dexterity sees her harmonising sweetly one second and bellowing “HOLIDAY, HOLIDAY, LET’S GO CRAZY” aboard Haitian rhythms the next.
Garbus’s decision to recruit flashy producers who’ve previously tweaked the knobs in the studio for the likes of Rihanna, Shakira and Frank Ocean for her latest long-player is borne out on-stage. It’s a far cry from the lo-fi crackle of her debut LP, 2009’s ‘Bird-Brains’. Indeed, if tUnE-yArDs’ first album was Garbus’s musical vision reflected in black and white, then ‘Nikki Nack’ is it being shot in full Technicolor.
At this volume, there may be little to no subtlety in the music, but Garbus’s lyrics remain a powerful distraction from all the instrumental chaos going on elsewhere.
‘Real Thing’ sees Garbus, an unabashed borrower of sounds and styles from the world over, interrogating her own authenticity. The violent imagery of ‘Water Fountain’, meanwhile, deals with harsh realities a million miles away from the track’s happy-go-lucky tune.
If this all sounds like could all be a bit po-faced, it isn’t. For one thing, everyone on stage has Frida Kahlo-style monobrows drawn on in fluorescent face-paint, which makes it hard to get bogged down in the heavy stuff.
Then there are the two backing singers who join Garbus in her vocal gymnastics, frequently and aggressively raising their drumsticks above their heads to form an x and bringing a loose, am-dram charm to the proceedings.
Cheers rise up from the crowd when Garbus picks up her trusty ukulele for an electrifying ‘Powa’, cut from 2011’s ‘w h o k i l l’ album, reclaiming the instrument from the grasps of every twee YouTuber up and down the country.
Rather than chant for more or stomp their feet, the audience take their cues from their idol’s unconventional approach to musicianship and entice the band back on for an encore by mimicking the siren call from ‘Gangsta’, dispatched earlier on in the set.
“Nice harmonies,” Garbus tells the crowd, returning with her tie-died entourage. Two ‘Nikki Nack’ tracks later and she brings the curtain down with ‘Fiya’, from her debut, offering a brief glimpse into the tUnE-yArDs of old. It may not be as colourful as the songs that came after it, but Garbus’s extraordinary voice makes certain it isn’t any less dazzling.
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Words: Nico Franks