You could tell right away that tUnE-yArDs had come to the right side of town. In front of the palace-like brownstones that pave the way to Prospect Park, beat-up vinyl and raggedy sci-fi novels lined the steps for the taking. On the next block, the steps were a stage, where a father and son duo sat practicing chords. The sidewalks were adorned in chalk arrows that led you to the weekend’s milk crate record sales. There was also a discarded guitar case that, upon inspection, puffed out a dusty sigh – surely out of work in a neighborhood that doesn’t seem to stop playing music.
Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based experimental rap duo, opened the final night of BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! festival without any smoke and mirrors – well, without any mirrors. Palaceer Lazaro and Baba Maraire stood front and center under the lights and built their beats in real time. Layering voice over rhythm, they proved that mics, laptops, and a drum or two were all they needed to get the kids dancing and carry us coolly into dusk. Like some kind of glittery foreshadowing for tUnE-yArDs, a star-shaped gold balloon lost its anchor and climbed steadily into space.
Merrill Garbus took the stage alone, but that didn’t last long. tUnE-yArDs cycled through a million configurations, jumping from solo act to 8-piece and dancing mystically through the transitions. With the impact of their music, which roughly falls under afrobeat, freak folk, and indie electronic (but can’t really be categorized), the typical concert atmosphere was utterly gone. New York was gone. The effect was more like that of a tribal ceremony, or some kind of otherworldly baptism.
Garbus, who flourishes in unpredictability, layered her ethereal vocals with percussive trills, chants, grunts, and soulful interjections. With partner in crime Nate Brenner on bass and synth, they first treated Brooklyn to “Rocking Chair,” “Time of Dark,” and “Hey Life.” When the crowd made a mess of their gritty hit, “Gangsta,” Garbus suddenly stopped the music and asked very politely, “Hang on a second, do you know the words? Cause it’s cool if you don’t…” Still tongue-tied from their attempts, the crowd cracked up.
“We’ll just have a little lesson here!” she proclaimed, going on to teach them the lyrics at an amusingly slow pace. “Now raise your hands if you thought they were different,” she surveyed with a laugh.
Grooving through “Wait for a Minute,” “Powa,” “Es-so,” “Sink-O,” “Real Thing,” “Look Around,” and “Stop That Man,” tUnE-yArDs never ended up quite where they started. Some ideas trailed away to crazy places – like in “Sink-O,” where Garbus breezes through the words, “Peace, peace and love, love is waiting for the feeling of discomfort to pass before killing.” Wait, what?
No emotion was off limits, and there was no way of guessing what came next. All you could do was give in. So 10,000 people gave in together, arms in the air, bodies swaying in the darkness. tUnE-yArDs closed in total brilliance with “Water Fountain,” “Bizness,” and “Left Behind,” and the whole park moved like an insatiable beast.
“I’ve never heard anything like that before,” whispered someone near me. You probably wouldn’t again, even if you saw them every night.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley