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tUnE-yArDs @ Union Transfer with Sylvan Esso.

June 17, 2014

TuneYards_Web (6 of 15)Text by Kyle Bagenstose. Images by Grace Dickinson.

About halfway through Sunday night’s packed-to-the-rafters tUnE-yArDs show at Union Transfer, it occurred to me I was going to have a damn hard time describing what I was seeing and hearing. Various words popped into mind – creative, unique, eclectic – but all seemed too cliché and nondescript.

Hell, before the Oakland, California based band even took to the stage I knew I was in trouble. I counted about a dozen different percussion instruments on stage, one of which appeared to be a conical piece of metal pulled from a scrap heap and another an odd looking drum that was possibly a djembe, according to photographer Grace Dickinson (“I took an African drumming class,” she said).

Then the five-some took to the stage – led by full time members Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner, along with touring members Jo Lampert, Dani Markham and Abigail Nessen – dressed in wild, brightly lit garb and decorated with festive facepaint that glowed neon under the blacklights. As the capacity crowd cheered, tUnE-yArDs initiated a slow, growing clap, and you could tell this wasn’t just going to be a concert, it was going to be an experience.

They launched into “Sink-o” and Garbus and Markham began pounding away at their percussion kits as Lampert and Nessen provided back-up harmonies while enthusiastically waving their hands through the air.

As stated previously, tUnE-yArDs has a difficult sound to describe. Many outlets refer to it as a mix of indie-pop, world sounds, and soul, which is about a small of a box as you can place around the music.

The presence of heavy, harmonious percussion was a mainstay throughout the performance, as Garbus and Markham kept to their kits, aided by the occasional tambourine shaking and drum-stick slapping of the backing Lampert and Markham, featured prominently on “Real Thing,” the fourth song of the set.

However, there were all kinds of weird noises popping in and out through the songs, particularly from the synthesizer and bass guitar of Brenner. At times, it would be used to an atmospheric effect on softer tunes like “Time of Dark,” and other times used to induce below-the-waist dancing from much of the sold-out audience, as happened on “Bizness,” deep into the set.

But just when you thought you had a grasp on what you were hearing, Garbus, who started the band as an independent project in 2006, would unload a soulful, almost growling voice that captured attention above the din of bass and drums.

Garbus also brought a gracious stage presence, spending time between songs addressing the crowd while adjusting the stage’s many instruments.

“It’s not lost on us what a blessing it is to have an audience like this, on a night like tonight,” Garbus said, drawing appreciative cheers. “I’m sweaty. Philadelphians always dance more than other cities.”

Garbus also announced that $1 of every ticket sale would be going to a Rara Tou Limen, a Bay Area Haitian dance company, so that the group could travel to Haiti on a cultural trip. Garbus added that she had visited the Caribbean country to learn more about its music, and had been musically inspired by the trip.

The group closed with “Water Fountain,” the first single off this year’s Nikki Nack, and left the stage to raucous applause from an audience that kept Union Transfer a packed house throughout the performance despite it being a Sunday night.

Opening for tUnE-yArDs was Durham, N.C.’s Sylvan Esso. An electronic duo, Sylvan Esso brought a Phantogram-esque sound to the stage, with the vocals of Amelia Meath soaring over the synth and effects work of Nick Sanborn.

The stage presence of the duo was simple yet effective. Both dressed in black jeans and a gray shirt, Meath danced around freely (making “the Robot” actually look cool for once) while Sanborn spent much of the set hunched over his electronic setup, head bobbing to the pre-engineered, bass heavy beats that had the front section of the crowd enthusiastically dancing.

The highlight of the set was the duo’s softly-stated “Coffee,” but songs like “H.S.K.T.” (which stands for Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. And yes, that was a repeated lyric in the song) had most of the crowd moving with a series of EDM-esque bass drops. Meath finished the song with an ever rising right-hand, which she stretched toward the roof, circling it to the beat, while stretching onto the tippy-toes of her gigantic platform boots.

The dance-inspiring music and friendly stage presence (“You guys are so close to Paesano’s all the time, how do you do it?” joked Sanborn) provided an ideal warm-up to the craziness that followed with tUnE-yArDs.

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