tUnE-yArDs eye nonconformity through a glorious lens in SF


Photos by Pedro Paredes // Written by Mike Frash //

tUnE-yArDs with Sylvan Esso //
The Fillmore – San Francisco
June 6th, 2014 //

“It’s 2014 and we’re playing at the fucking Fillmore!” declared Merrill Garbus early in the set Friday as her eyes flickered with excitement. Known for her commanding gaze, the captivating centerpiece of tUnE-yArDs has fully embraced an eyeball motif in support of the incredibly addictive Nikki Nack. Garbus is surrounded by large eyes on stage, the show poster from the Fillmore features a piercing globular organ growing off a plant where a flower would normally be, and in the joyfully-insane video for “Water Fountain”, almost every shot contains artificial eyes or Garbus’ remarkable optical dexterity.

Accented makeup and glitter frame her sight, an innovative vision and expressive perspective that makes it difficult to take your eyes off her. tUnE-yArDs’ focus on eyes as a motif suitably reflects Garbus’ immaculate confidence and control amid pervasive themes of subverting conformity and growing paranoia, curating a transformative live music experience in the process — just don’t call her the “Real Thing”.


This night felt like a genuine two-for-one deal with fast-rising Sylvan Esso opening. Empowering female vocals and effective repetition was the connecting force between both duos this night, & the first act to perform inspired palpable crowd reactions with their minimalist-glitch approach. Singer Amelia Meath’s voice sparkles with the tone of Feist and the intonation of Regina Spektor, while Nick Sanborn’s live production hits the sweat spot of trending sound in 2014 — the wobbles and looping vocals are somehow familiar and fresh all at once. “H.S.K.T.” provided the most fun, upbeat action in the set, and “Coffee” was a strong example why this is a group to watch going forward.

Sylvan Esso’s engaging stage presence willed the audience to listen, and their expressive body language convinced most folks to move to the music instead of chat, a fate that befalls opening acts more than not. Often exhibiting mid-song patience, taking in each moment of downtempo ambiance, Sylvan Esso was an ideal pairing with tUnE-yArDs, further proven when Meath joined Merrill Garbus during tUnE-yArDs’ encore performance of the vocal-heavy “Rocking Chair”. Poised to break out much bigger in this viral music climate, Sylvan Esso should catapult upward as demand will likely dictate.


The song selection for the tUnE-yArDs set unsurprisingly focused on cuts from Nikki Nack, as almost every track from the record got attention. Flanked by female backup singers, Garbus relies less on looping than in the past, yet this cathartic repetition is still the backbone of most songs. Bringing in additional vocal support allows for a more organic approach to live production than past tours, letting Garbus focus on her powerful stage presence.

Technical precision is one of tUnE-yArDs’ biggest strengths, yet there’s still room for exploratory, drawn out moments. “Powa” extended into incredibly chaotic territory for the song’s outro. “Stop That Man” went on a risky journey that easily paid off with its industrial beats and overwhelming reverb vocals. Many new songs, including “Water Fountain” and “Sink-O”, jump into the refrain right away, contorting traditional strong structure in a way that makes the songs feel like pop music from the future. So many of these new songs give an intended feeling of anxiety, as if you’re being watched.


Driven by percussion, vocals and ecstatic hyperactivity, tUnE-yArDs win with a lighthearted, quirky mentality that skewers conformity. “Real Thing” blissfully critiques the notion of what a woman is supposed to look like while embracing true self. “Why are you afraid about pants size ten? Humadum, rumadum/ They’re chosen girls/ While you worry about chest size 6/ They’re winning the tricks…Ugly one be you, who you are.” Garbus goes out on the proverbial limb, bearing herself for all to see. It’s leadership like this that sets tUnE-yArDs apart.

This show had all the indications of an essential live performance; the music was thoroughly impacting, and the crowd was completely immersed and wide-eyed throughout, taking in tUnE-yArDs’ breathtaking sonic concoctions.


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