Live: tUnE-yArDs Explodes At Pier 54

tUnE-yArDs w/Austra Pier 54 at Hudson River Park Thursday, July 14

Better than: Standing around with your arms crossed.

"Everyone turn around and look at the moon," tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus instructed at the outset of tUnE-yArDs' set last night. She was asking people not just to marvel at its fullness, but to take a second for a bit of self-reflection; it was the last moment that the crowd would get a chance to pause until she exited the stage, a hail of fireworks celebrating her triumphant set on the Hudson River.

From there Garbus and the three musicians assisting her—a bassist and two saxophone players—tore through eleven songs that grabbed from influences all over the map. Garbus is a wonder to watch because there's never a moment where she isn't doing something; she's all energy, looping her voice and playing her ukulele and slamming the drums that flank her and leading the crowd in clapping and chanting and probably doing other things that weren't visible from the audience's position. (It would be amazing to watch her from above, which would offer a fantastic vantage point for her pedal-manipulating.) That she creates all this noise and heat with simple tools—a plucked string, a string of ululations—is even more impressive, so much so that it's easy to not notice the fact that her voice is a marvel. She can bellow with the best of them and then curl her singing into a coo, or unleash a falsetto that would make Prince sit up and take notice. Her songs take similar hairpin turns, going from soulful to skronky within seconds and revealing that there isn't too much of a difference between those things that, on the surface, seem either beautiful or difficult.

The sense of vitality brought forth by Garbus—which also courses through w h o k i l l, (4AD) her new album—spilled over into the crowd and then some. This was not a show where people posed for pictures or positions on the Disaffected Showgoer list. She led calls and responses of "yeah" that were lusty on both sides; she asked people to dance; there weren't many people texting or chatting even during the relative lulls when she set up her loops for each songs. (Indeed, just those licks would, at times, inspire cheers from the crowd.)

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And so, when she was nearly done and she announced that her last song would be her exit, the crowd protested; she did come out for an encore, and thanked her mom and dad. As she ripped into "Killa," where she declares that she's "a new kind of woman," fireworks—yes!—sprung up behind her. It was a moment that was as surprising as it was completely appropriate; it was as if the energy she possessed onstage and had whipped up in the crowd was so strong, it caused pyrotechnics to sprout on the other side of the Hudson. As I walked out, other members of the crowd remained rooted in their positions and gazed up at the sky, looks of happy wonder on their faces. It's not a stretch to say that Garbus' magnificent set probably added to their dreamy delight.

Critical bias: w h o k i l l is top five of 2011 for me so far. Also, I danced a lot last night.

Overheard: "Is facepaint a new 'thing'?"

Random notebook dump: I missed half the set by Toronto's Austra, but the new wave/hippie/goth hybrid's songs were a beautiful accompaniment to the sunset, even if the setting did shave off a bit of their icy edge.

Set list: Do You Wanna Live? Gangsta Es-So Powa Fiya Bizness Real Live Flesh Hatari You Yes You My Country -- Killa

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