This one was always going to be something special. Merrill Garbus’ – a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs – sophomore release W H O K I L L is an album that defies categorisation blending elements of jazz, rock, rap and African rhythms into one of the most original and distinctive releases of last year. It’s clear from the buzzed-up crowd that this long sold-out show has been much anticipated, and while most will have checked out tUnE-yArDs various live performances online there is still an element of excitement in wondering just what tonight’s set-up will entail. Dublin post-rock duo Thread Pulls warm up an already simmering crowd with songs from their debut album New Thoughts. The band – just bass and drums with sampled loops, high-pitched vocals and discordant trumpet wails – lay out percussion-laden, repetitive, rolling rhythms creating a dark and atmospheric wall of sound. There is no escaping a Liars comparison here and fans of that band will either lap this up or scoff at how close Thread Pulls are to the bludgeoning drum and bass-heavy sound of the US band. In the absence of a Liars gigs though this will do nicely and it is a perfect precursor to tUnE-yArDs. It’s only a shame that they played to an almost-packed floor that wasn’t quite ready to dance just yet. That was to come.
Garbus comes out alone and begins singing acapella. I say singing but she coos, wails, moans and everything else in between, going from high-pitched choir-like notes down to guttural groans in the same breath, an astonishing display of vocal gymnastics that elicits nervous laughter from some, but an admiring turn-to-the-person-beside-you-“fuckin’ hell” from most. This is tribal, raw, and when Garbus screams “Do you wanna live?” the only crowd response is “YEAH!” She is then joined for ‘Bizness’ by her band; a bass player, and two saxophone players channelling, one imagines, the nipples of Gina Lollobrigida and Kim Basinger. This music has soul but it ain’t got corners. There is no downtime for these musicians – if fingers aren’t on strings, keys or buttons there is some form of percussion instrument being played. Garbus, armed only with a snare drum, floor tom and ukulele, builds rich, full grooves with intricate vocal harmonies and I’ll tell you what, no ukulele ever sounded like this where you or I were reared. ‘Es-so’ leads into ‘Gangster’, the catalyst that transforms the crowd from swaying onlookers to a bouncing mass before descending into ordered chaos and smiles all around.
‘Powa’ and B-side ‘Youth’ calm things down again before Garbus is re-joined by her saxophone players for ‘Doorstep’, a feast of layered loops and effects. ‘Yes Yes You’ rounds off the set with the singer instructing “This is where you JUMP!” A mental switch is flicked, and band and audience pogo in unison. This was a band enjoying themselves as much as we were, with the singer assured, uninhibited and setting the template for the rest of the tour. The one-song encore consists of ‘My Country’ and one last chance to dance, as Garbus informs the balcony dwellers. The bass player chips in his first and only vocal of the night on this one to good natured cheers each time – goodwill was in plentiful supply after this fantastic show. As an opening night of a tour, neither performer nor punter could ask for a better kick-off.