This is the fourth time I’ve seen Merrill Garbus play and while I’ve always enjoyed her shows, I also fretted for her well-being. She had so much shit to do, singing and looping her voice, playing percussion and electric ukulele, all those pedals and effects.
Her early evening show at the Red Marquee wasn’t particularly crowded, but the people who were there seemed primed for what she offers, a kind of super personal version of African styles filtered through her quirky world view. On her new album she takes herself to task for her “appropriation,” and the opening song of the hour-long set was “Your Hands,” which addresses this problem. Personallly, I find it almost too conventional in the Tune-Yards catalogue, but live she breathed life into it, stretched it out, improvised a bit. By the end, the audience was jelly. She got an incredible ovation for a song they seemed to barely know.
So imagine their reaction when she eventually played songs they did know. “Gangster” and “Water Fountain” practically had the crowd tearing the place down. What made them so special was Garbus’s newfound ability to express herself without having to deal too heavily with the equipment. Her drummer and sideman helped a lot, but mainly I think she’s just gotten so good at this shit that she knows what she can and can’t do, and what she can do is phenomenally complex.
Sporting a bluish-grey short haircut that complemented her elder sister vibe and a baggy grey dreww that billowed in the breeze, she cut an imposting figure visually, as well. But it was the sonics that sold the show. I understand her apprehension at being possibly labeled someone who appropriates another culture for their own gain, but quality is quality, and this was the best I’ve ever seen her. The crowd indicated it was the best thing they’d seen in a while, too.