Published Jul 10, 2015Though well-known for her use of sound looping in her live performances, tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus didn't seem to really double back on her own sounds until the fifth song of her Halifax Jazz Festival show. For the set's first four songs — all from last year's Nikki Nack — Garbus let her talented backing band of five carry much of the percussive and vocal weight necessary to pull off her forceful, polyrhythmic pop.
And then she began whooping into her microphone, harmonizing layer on layer, and you could feel a crackle through the crowd as they realized what was coming next: "Gangsta," one of tUnE-yArDs' breakthrough tracks from 2011's w h o k i l l. The energy heightened as the song's driving drumbeat kicked in and Garbus' enthusiasm took hold, as what had been an accomplished-but-professional show suddenly gained a sense of chaos and a tinge of danger.
At their best, like "Gangsta," Garbus' songs are dizzying: they frantically scale melodic and rhythmic heights that leave you worried the performances are going to crash back down again, but somehow never do. Accordingly, the peaks of her Jazz Fest set were stratospheric, particularly the one-two punch of "Water Fountain" and "Bizness" that closed the main set. Also gripping was "Powa," for which Garbus stripped back her stage line-up to just her and bassist Nate Brenner, building the ukulele-led song upwards piece by piece.
For whatever reason, Nikki Nack hasn't seemed to quite hit the same level of zeitgeist-y buzz that w h o k i l l managed, despite solid reviews. While the record is built on many of the same strengths as its predecessor — particularly Garbus' vocal runs, which dash rapidly from soft and inviting to assaulting and mighty — its prioritizing of rhythm over melody gives the material a certain sameness, particularly live. Garbus and company leaned heavily on the record for their setlist last night; by my count, they performed nine of the album's 13 songs, many of them played alongside one another. The effect was a set that was largely consistent in quality but was defined mostly by those moments that broke away from that mould and offered a chance for tUnE-yArDs and crowd alike to let loose.
The crowd was already loosened up before Garbus took the stage thanks to a lively opening set by Moon Hooch, a Brooklyn-based saxophone dance trio whose sound fuses the heft of EDM with the deftness of jazz. My reaction to the performance evolved as it went along: from scepticism, to curiosity, to respect, and finally to recognition: I'd actually seen the trio busking in New York's Washington Square Park a number of years ago. A brief spoken-word "rap" mid-set hit a bum note — a rote piece lamenting capitalist "slavery" — and I couldn't help but feel like the band's other Nova Scotia shows (a late night set at the Company House Friday and performances at the Evolve Festival on Saturday and Sunday) might be a better fit than a parking lot opening set under still-daylight hours. But, overall, the buzz Moon Hooch generated among the crowd was palatable, as was the enthusiasm in the dance pit in front of the stage.