It’s easy to identify the ingredients in Tune-Yards’ music: playground chants, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and arty bleep-and-thwack minimalism. What’s harder to convey is how smart, lively and just plain fun the Oakland, Calif., duo’s live performances can be. Word seems to have gotten around, though. The group’s Friday performance at the 9:30 Club was the first of two sold-out nights.
Initially, Tune-Yards was a one-woman show, featuring singer, drummer and ukulele player Merrill Garbus and a battery of electronic devices to extend and reiterate the sounds she made.
She now teams with bassist Nate Brenner, who also plays electronic keyboards, sings a little and co-wrote most of the songs on Tune-Yards’ third album, “Nikki Nack.” Released last month, that record provided most of the material in Friday’s 80-minute set.
For this tour, Garbus and Brenner were joined by percussionist-singer Dani Markham and singer-percussionists Jo Lampert and Abigail Nessen-Bengson.
Their essential task was to reproduce the beats and trills that Garbus multi-tracks in the studio. But they did much more, helping to transform compositions that sound a little fussy in their recorded versions into songs that were spontaneous and communal.
Although such Tune-Yards numbers as “Bizness” are highly rhythmic, it was still surprising when they became loose, open-ended grooves. Garbus is a strong and versatile singer and, with the other voices in support, she sounded like a earnest gospel belter as often as she did an ironic art-rock chanteuse. Magnified on stage, the stacked vocals of “Wait for a Minute” shimmered like something from one of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s voice-and-percussion pieces.
Garbus, who was formerly a puppeteer, embraces the theatrical. Her uniform for this tour is an aqua dress with a fish-scale pattern and shiny gold puff sleeves, accessorized with Day-Glo face paint. The stage was decorated as if for a psychedelic fifth-grade play, with pink fabric twisted from one side of the stage to the other and large cartoonish eyes above. The setting matched the vibe of such clap-along, sing-together ditties as “Water Fountain” and “Hey Life.”
If the choruses of these songs recalled the girlish unison chants of the B-52s and the Tom Tom Club, pungent lyrics laced the bubble-gum melodies. “Manchild” confronted sexual harassment and assault, while “Real Thing” booed such sports-team names as Braves and, yes, Redskins. Inspired by a trip to Haiti, “Water Fountain” alluded to a fundamental Third World injustice: the lack of drinkable water. The message was stark and complex at the same, just like Tune-Yards’ music.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.