tUnE-yArDs finally made it back to Lawrence after a cancelled previous attempt and they played a very cozy (packed and loud) and warm (hot and sweaty) Jackpot Saloon. I say they rather than she because assistant Nate is apparently now a true songwriting partner with Merrill as of at least their latest album release. And their two-man sax section from Portland made for some incredibly effective sound stacking as this duo delivered blistering and chops-laden bursts of delicious insanity with enthusiasm in spades.
But Merrill (yes I refuse to use her surname as per normal journalistic style) is the ringleader here. You can’t not like her. There’s just no way. She’s so gentle, happy and humble between songs and then she starts to concentrate and lay down foundational layers of sound, her brow furrowed and her stocking feet dancing around the sampling pedals on their racetrack rug, and then this goddess-demoness-dangerous-benevolent-spirit-guide rips its way out through her throat, eyes, and hands, which are screaming discordantly or breaking into high vocal flutters in perfect intonation while building fascinating strata upon strata, glaring or scowling or beaming triumphantly out over the audience to an unseen distant knowledge, and using drum sticks to pound deep toms in rolling rhythms or using fingers to delicately pick or violently bash-strum her brown ukulele.
Experiencing this phenomenon live is hands down more satisfying and revealing than the CD or YouTube experience, which was my only prior benchmark for them. From about nine feet away (and three feet away from an overhead PA speaker, ouch), I witnessed what was in a nut shell an impressive, deft real-time sonic painting and construction project with massive punch-you-in-the-face vocals and lyrics over embellished primitive African rhythmic structures run through a Minimalist sensibility filter. I really appreciate music that warps the commonly understood agreements about what something like a “song” is but this kind of envelope-pushing is hard to pull off so consistently, masterfully, and with such accessibility.
While the mix was loud at the close range, I’m fairly certain that the decibels from the audience response to her crowd interaction and at the end of songs easily surpassed the house PA where I was standing. At one point she encouraged the audience to hold a specific pitch for her, which we did with gusto, and it became the ultimate final layer of the composition. Nice touch. It reminded me of that Crown Uptown first Pixies reunion tour a few years back where the audience spontaneously began “oooohhhhh”-ing the descant lines in “Caribou” and suddenly Kim Deal heard it over the stage sound and looked up with a startled look at the floor crowd and then up into the balconies and a huge smile broke out across her face. There were similar but much more condensed and animalistic moments of sharing at the Jackpot last night and this is what makes live music into something you just have to be there for.
Opener Pat Jordache had their moments but were just not as interesting (to me). The mix was awful to my ears, at least up close to the PA, where it was distorted, garbled and over-driven. Sound check was a litany of intractable hums and buzzes with bad cables and power supplies and who knows what all, while mic checks between songs revealed static and noise on the lead vocal mic, to the discovery of which the singer muttered “oh, this, thing …” which was actually a moment of unintentional humor for those of us that heard it.
At their lesser points they sounded like a generic 80’s pop song demo in a dirty live bar-band mix, but I did get genuinely caught up a few times near the beginning and end of their set when they were in their two-drummer configuration. At these moments they had blocky walls of heavy drums regimenting into tight rock-oriented punchy arrangements with guitar and heavy bass chording employing tasty stops and a counter-phrased strong vocal on top. In general I liked them best when they went for the rock edge and when they didn’t do this they suffered from a noticeable lack of interesting weirdness which prevented them from being bona fide “experimental.” Then again, trying to out-experimental (or even keep up) with tUnE-yArDs in that arena would be a thankless endeavor for an opening band in any circumstance.
First things last: A final nod must be given to the wonderfully diverse crowd. First connections were made as I arrived alone and discovered like many to come after me that while there was no sign posted on the door, once you entered you found out that despite the “doors at 8 pm” listed on the website and apparently the tickets as well, we had to stand outside in the chilly blowing rain and lightning for forty minutes. I felt sorry for the door guy having to tell a never ending parade of people pushing in from the cold and in a few cases already a bit feisty and internally warmed by prior libations that they had to wait outside with no definite ETA for coming in.
As we waited, though, we shared knowledge about the band, the opening band, what was happening; one group had seen both bands together recently in Austin, so forth. Once inside, I offered the two-seater against the wall to a couple that had driven down from Nebraska after being handed a tUnE-yArDs flyer as they exited the recent St. Vincent show at Liberty Hall. They were in heaven later when the show began, by which time (an hour late, right on schedule for the Jackpot of course) it was densely packed in the front half of the venue – hot, close, and quite a cultural, social and geographic assortment of fans. There was even some interesting dancing here and there, at least around where I ended up camping out with my friends-during-the-concert compadres, and there was adrenalin-driven solidarity and unity in the experience.