It didn’t take long for last Wednesday night’s show at DC9 to sell out. This was one of those times where The Other AC and I (and his girl, Lyz, too) were lured by one of the opening bands.
I’d heard about Tune Yards a couple of months back via the I Guess I’m Floating blog. After hearing “Hitari” and “When You Tell the Lions” via the I Guess I’m Floating blog, I assumed the band to be some co-ed act with young black women, probably from the islands or Britain, taking on lead vocals. But, that’s the big surprise for most Tune Yards fans — finding out that instead of this whole ensemble of black women, it’s Merrill Garbus, a white girl from Connecticut who wears an asymmetrical haircut and starts her songs by hooting and hollering into a drum machine. The frequent misconception has even become a self-referential joke; Garbus has a song called “She Isn’t Jamaican.” The Other AC said that Yards is shortform for the slang, “Yardies,” which refers to residents of the projects in Trenchtown (Jamaica). Misconception or not, Tune Yards is a refreshing break from indie’s recent stagnation.
I was reading an over-thought academic analysis of show audiences (see Wendy Fanarow’s Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music). Why do we go to shows? Since, clearly, we haven’t yet outgrown this past-time, getting excited about an obscure band performing in a moderate sized venue, and us, standing alongside hordes of fellow culture nerds. It’s like going to a movie or a game is to another person — something about the thrill of a real-time experience and all that make it so.
DC9 is certainly an intimate setting on a Wednesday evening. The bar was sparse and the booths lining the dark walls covered in mirrors and curious photographs were all nearly empty. The Other AC, Lyz and I sat near the stairs where the line eventually started to form in the moments before the ticket seller opened the red curtain to Babylon. Merrill Garbus walked past us and headed up the stairs, and on her way back, took a seat in one of the booths with her bassist for the evening, Nate, and the members of the lo-tech headliners, Xiu Xiu. Behind them, the opening band, Twin Sister, filled a booth and the bassist and guitarist discussed the geographic logic of the Beltway (they’re from Long Island).
The audience crowded around the front of the stage fairly quickly, and we staked our territory off to the left side of the stage, the same place Phil and I stood to watch Leslie Hall dance around on a hydraulic lift a few months earlier. We were surrounded by a gigantic guy who stood at least 7 feet tall (an inadvertent faux pas in terms of show etiquette) while a pair of couples dressed stood in front of us, blocking some of the view. The guys spent the evening either trying to either impress each other or each others’ dates. One pulled his tie up around his head like a yuppie warrior.
It was a fairly efficient night. The first opening band was five baby-faced kids out of Long Island, and for the past week, I was under the impression that they were called Tune Sister rather than Twin Sister.
Twin Sister performing in the dark in Louisville.
Twin Sister had the indie standard – guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, and drummer (who I noticed had an interesting technique for softening up the drum beat by covering the tops with t-shirts). They had a young girl taking the helm of lead singer, and she stood at the center of the stage with her arms crossed in front of her as she kind of bobbed up and down like Feist, one hand holding the mic, the other keeping her sweater with the wide cut neck from falling off her completely. They had the energy for it, mixing charming instrumentals high in reverb (similar to Chicago’s The Changes) with almost-too-subtle Nico-esque vocals. The guitarists seemed to fawn over the singer, and the band didn’t seem to sure of themselves, and I wondered if they were fairly new at this. The lead singer closed the set by asking the audience whether they wanted one more song or two. It probably caught people off guard, as though the lead singer was forcing a forfeit and no one shouted two. They played Milk & Honey and then walked off stage. Earlier this week, I found some recorded tracks (on Grooveshark), but didn’t like them. Though the instrumentals were still just as good, their singer’s dull manner and strange annunciations manage to overshadow that.
We broke away for potty breaks and drink refills as Tune Yards set up, which was fairly easy, considering Garbus keeps it simple: a drum machine, a bass drum and snare on either side of her. A small ukelele. Some mics. And, her nerdy bassist, Nate. The front of stage grew even more packed, competition for spots closer to the front even more fierce (which makes show-going companions handy for holding highly coveted spots during the potty breaks and drink refills), and I wondered how many people came here to see Tune Yards, rather than the headliners, Xiu Xiu. That’s happened before, back when Philadelphia-bred Man Man passed through the Black Cat in a sold show where half of the audience left before the headliners, Cursive, ever took the stage. It’s a sure sign that the Tune Yards, should they roll through town again, start booking for spacier venues like the Black Cat’s upper stage, and not in any mere supporting role.
Merrill Garbus starts off her songs by layering a few vocal snippets with a drum machine and playing these as background vocals in the songs. It’s a little beat-boxish. For the rest, she either strums a ukelele or keeps beat on the drums on either side of her, while Nate smoothly added the bass line.
I saw an interview once where Garbus said she’d spent time in Kenya, having this obsession with Africa, and it shows in her music. In part, for subjects (one of her best songs is “Gangsta/My Hood”), but more because when it’s all put together, it sounds very tribal. Or, as indie often does, fuses traditional tribal sound with modern beats. The Tune Yards debut CD, Bird-Brains, which got major accolades in the music press in 2009, has some stellar tracks (I highly recommend “Real Live Flesh”), but this kind of stuff is best heard live.
The Other AC made a good point about the Tune Yards – they’re very “down-to-earthy,” the music was stellar, the banter was charming, their CD was great, and so few people have heard about them, but the recommendations seem to be winners so far.
And now it’s time for Things I know about Merrill Garbus (if she was telling the truth during the impromptu Q & A while she fixed a broken ukelele string):
1. Her first car came with a theme song… “Taurus! What is she good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!”
2. Her first true love? Snackwells!
3. When someone asked who the child was heard on the album, she explained that she had met the kid when she was a nanny on Martha’s Vineyard.
4. She’s a reader who sometimes hates listening to music (I think she meant because of the saturation that listening to too much music, or indiscriminately, leads to) and was currently reading a book on hip hop history in the US.
5. She plays barefoot.
I shouted out a recommendation for Leggs McNeil’s “Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” I wonder if she heard…
We didn’t stick around for Xiu Xiu.