I’m still relatively new to this country (approaching three years as a resident), but I’m aware that Cinco de Mayo is supposed to be a celebration — even if the date happens to land on Monday when most of us have just begun the working week and the concept of a long drinking session is an absolute no-go.
Once that option has been ruled out, the alternative is to go to a different kind of party, one that has its own surge of energy and that would be embracing a carnival atmosphere even if it wasn’t a holiday. In which case, the unlikely setting of the historic Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery was the perfect place to be last Monday night. It was there that Tune-Yards (or tUnE-yArDs, if you want to be more precise) launched their new album with the first headlining show of their tour after a stint supporting Arcade Fire.
The band was celebrating something else as well, namely the release the following day of its third album, Nikki Nack, and so the set was flooded mainly with songs from that record. The fact that the album had been streaming online for a week or so before meant that enthusiasm in the audience was sky high, something duly noted by the irrepressible Merrill Garbus. It was she that began the show by looping her handclaps for the brief opener “Rocking Chair,” and that song set the tone for a set full of joy and energy.
Garbus really is a force of nature. Along with her songwriting partner (on bass duties for the night), she has created a back catalog that is completely unique, but over time she has honed that songwriting talent and tempered her voice to make the quiet moments as effective as the loud ones. With two backing singers to help her through the many segments of harmony, the vocals for the show were absolutely on point. Indeed Garbus uses vocal harmonies in the way that Dirty Projectors do, as much for their percussive effect as their melodic one.
The new songs went down a storm. Nikki Nack is an album that might not necessarily break new ground like its predecessor, but it does build on the previous album’s charms with the help of a tighter focus and a more obvious confidence in the material. Garbus spoke emotionally at one point about the recording process and having no idea whether anyone would like these songs, but then she released the likes of “Water Fountain” and the excellent dub-based “Manchild” into the room and looked delighted by the response.
There were also reminders of previous triumphs, with the still incredible “Gangsta” making an appearance early on and an extended, triumphant jam version of “Bizness” taking up most of the encore. The best thing I can say about Tune-Yards and Merrill Garbus is that watching the band onstage, and watching its leading lady build these songs from the ground up, made me want to go away and write and be creative and just do something. I can count the number of artists on one hand who have that rare effect, but the Masonic Lodge hosted one of them last week. A wonderful show, and one that will take some effort to beat this year.
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