One of the best things about the Brighton music scene is that we usually tend to get the smallest dates on the tour. Massive artists come here and play to a third of the people they would just up the road in London. This is one of the key reasons Tune-Yards was such an exciting prospect at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, which is nestled in the Sussex University campus in Falmer. However, it’s a fairly long trek from the centre of Brighton and, with the snowy conditions, I was fairly sure that a lot of people would be put off the journey, but it’s testament to the quality of Tune-Yards and the passion of Brightonians, that not only was it sold-out, but there was a queue in the cold before the doors had even opened. Of course, Tune-Yards were more than worth this, as Merrill Garbus put on an extraordinary performance, showcasing her delicate musical ability as well as an insanely impressive vocal range.
Boogarins, the Brazilian psychedelic-rock group, opened the proceedings with an exciting set. Under low-key, red lighting, they performed songs from last year’s Lá Vem a Morte. It was a confident set, steeped in psychedelia, with constant and calm drum grooves, melodic guitars drenched in reverb, and fuzzy and woozy sounding vocals. In many ways, the venue’s gorgeous interior made their performance that much better. With its atmospheric lighting and crisp sound, it was almost the perfect platform for a support slot.
The night was all about Tune-Yards, though, and her first tour in what feels like forever. It was a lowkey opening, as the three band members slowly made their way to their places, followed by Merrill Garbus softly whispering “Woo” into her microphone, which was softly reciprocated by both the audience and her loop mic. There was already a sense of difference to this performance than her previous ones. Whether that’s just because of the more politicised new record, I can feel you creep into my private life, or a conscious decision, it didn’t matter. It felt important, vital and there was an impression of malice and urgency.
The foundations still remain the same, of course. Garbus’ excellent experiments with beats, probed and practised with hypnotic loops and stutters, as well as the use of her dynamic handclaps and drumstick jangles, evoking the trademarks of afrobeat and worldbeat. Yet it was her progressively diverse vocals, which were less processed and more organic than on record, that were the most impressive features of the night. At one point during the set, she moved away from the mic and hit the most outrageously high note that filled every corner of the ACCA, in a moment that succumbed the audience to sheer awe.
This, in turn, created an even more heightened meaning to her sensitive, yet angry lyrics. Her encore alone was pure pop and political perfection. ‘Bizness’, from 2011 album W H O K I L L, is structured around impish vocal manipulation, dynamic horn and synth parts, and wacky loops, but the line: “Don’t take my life away/don’t take my life away” was layered with so much meaning it would have stayed with anyone who saw it. Likewise, final song ‘Free’ was an angry burst of antagonism, with Garbus yelling “Free! Don’t tell me I’m free” with all the passion of someone who is urging for change with every utterance. It was an exhilarating ending to a night of pure art-pop supremacy. In fact, throughout the night – from the music, to the venue, to the incredibly thoughtful, effervescent lighting – it was about as ostentatious, exciting and profound you can make a pop music show. All of this is without mentioning an early outing for her biggest single, ‘Water Fountain’, which is one of the most exciting pop songs of this decade.