Better Than: A night in with real cartoons — this show was live-action animation
The last night of a good tour feels like a high-school graduation: There are lots of hugs and “We love you guys!,” guesting during each others’ sets and/or hijinx, which can range from Motley Crue surprising Guns N’ Roses with 25 blasts of pyro during “Welcome to the Jungle” in 1987 to a particularly inspired toilet-paper fight between Deer Tick and Guards on the Webster Hall stage a couple of years back.
I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that maybe possibly or at least partially because three-fourths of the musicians onstage for the final date of the six-week-long Tuneyards/Sylvan Esso tour at Webster Hall on Monday night were female, we only got the first two. Still, it was a warm, fuzzy and fun show –the second of two sold-out nights — before a crowd filled with more than a few Merrill-ites: festooned with painted faces, brightly colored clothes and luridly patterned tights in homage to Tune-Yards frontal lobe Merrill Garbus.
Sylvan Esso started off the evening at 9 p.m. sharp with a tight set drawing from their just-five-weeks-old self-titled debut. The songs, bedroom-studio-ish on the album, have taken on a brawnier form over the group’s weeks of touring, beefed up by the duo’s energetic stage presence: singer Amelia Meath stomps and hops, bringing an almost hip-hop vibe as she pushes hard on the songs’ cadences with emphatic hand gestures; the cartoonish vibe of her loping dance moves was enhanced by her clompy, big-heeled shoes and tight T-shirt/dress, which had a two-foot-tall photo of Bjork making a maniacal face. Instrumentalist Nick Sanborn works the mixer and laptop with more visual verve than most of his ilk, bobbing and nodding and clapping, twisting knobs and finessing the board like he’s building some awesome toy — in other words, like he’s playing an instrument rather than operating a machine.
The crowd turned up early and loudly — even singing along on the “do you love me” part of “Coffee” — giving such a warm response that at one point the duo shrugged at each other incredulously. “Yeah, this is pretty much the best thing ever,” Sanborn said amid copious thanks to the crowd, their crew and Tune-Yards.
The duo performed in front of Tune-Yards’ comically garish stage set, which got even more lurid before the group took the stage. It looked like something designed by a creative six-year-old — part Pee-wee’s Playhouse, part Monsters, Inc. — with eyeballs and fluorescent day-glo colors everywhere (there were even a couple of eyeballs on the floor). The bandmembers — Garbus, bassist/keyboardist/boyfriend Nate Brenner, drummer Dani Markham and three backing singers — were vivid and enthusiastic components of the stage set, clad in a mixture of bright colors, courageously clashing patterns and face paint, a vibe that’s reflected in their loudly colored, cacophonously cohesive music. Garbus was clad in a white dress with thick horizontal red stripes and wore an electric-blue Native-American sash over her left shoulder, making her look from a distance like Jasper Johns’ American flag.
Unhinged as it can sound, Tune-Yards’ music is tightly organized, and from her perch at center stage — surrounded by drums, a keyboard, a battery of pedals and, of course, a couple of eyeballs — Garbus was every bit the bandleader, pacing the tightly drilled group through the first part of the set at a brisk clip, with songs rarely passing the four-minute mark and seguing quickly from one to the next as she directed the musicians with her drumsticks and, when both hands and voice were occupied, with a backward kick of her bare foot. Later, she paused to tune her floor tom before joining the singers in a semi-synchronized dance.
The set featured nearly all of the group’s latest LP, Nikki Nack, along with around half of its predecessor, Whokill. The crowd erupted when favorites from the latter — No. 1 in Voice‘s 2011 Pazz & Jop poll — were aired, singing along loudly with the “Weee-oooo”s and “Bang-bang-bang-oooooo”s. For a change of pace, all of the musicians except Brenner vacated the stage for “Powa,” for which Merrill grabbed her ukulele, constructed an elaborately looped multiple-drum-and-vocal intro — basically reverting to her earlier live setup, which is a primer on how she constructs her songs — before turning the whole thing off with a flip of a foot pedal and proceeding with the song.
“You might have heard us mess up a couple of times,” she said. “I keep getting distracted by people’s faces — I’m not offended at all, but I did see some Monday-night yawns,” she laughed. “It’s cool. I’m tired too, man”
The set got looser as it progressed, the band stretching out a couple of songs instrumentally, a sax player joining in, Meath duetting on two songs, leaving Garbus with a long and warm hug. For the encore, Garbus and the singers returned for “Rocking Chair” before being joined by the rest of the group for “Find a New Way.”
From a seat up in the balcony VIP section, Laurie Anderson watched as one of her many spiritual students mutated the textbooks into lurid new shapes.
Overheard: “I could never pull off those tights.”
Random Notebook Dump: “Lots of singing along on ‘Weeeee-ooooo bang bang bang ooooooo.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 24, 2014