Live From The Allen Room: Thurston Moore, tUnE-yArDs, John Mayall & John Hammond
The remaining two band members are harpist Mary Lattimore and violinist Samara Lubelski. The triumph of the quintet is an ability to confuse the mind with its marriage of acoustic instruments and carefully applied electronic effects. It soon became apparent that a low-level semi-acoustic build-up of energy possessed an equal potential to excite, its dynamics operating with a similar force to a fully electric grouping, just as potent, but on a quieter sound-stage. When, periodically, Moore stepped sharply on a foot-pedal, he could activate a hellish feedback through his acoustic hollow-body, holding it aloft, angling gently to coax a deeper howling. At one point, during "Ono Soul," it seemed like he might just hurl it through the double-layered Allen Room windows, down onto Columbus Circle.
After these current dates, the acoustic guitar was going to be fed to the wood chipper, he quipped. Much of the tension was generated by a very precise cutting from verses to choruses, minimalist skeleton-forms to hard-strumming freak-outs, sudden switches of emphasis and equally sharp song-endings. I'm sure that we don't want to wave farewell to the excessive wall-of-bursting texture-floods that characterize Sonic Youth, but Moore certainly established that he's the master of an entirely different mode of communication, descended yet evolved into the toughest folk music we're ever likely to experience.
The Allen Room
February 9, 2012
Despite his rock 'n' roll extremity, Thurston Moore can now be considered a part of the New York musical establishment. The inclusion of tUnE-yArDs was easily the most adventurous choice in this year's American Songbook season. Initially, the tUnE-yArDs guise was a direct alias of Oakland resident Merrill Garbus, but lately the name seems to have evolved to embrace her regular band of cohorts, now that they've grown into a stable touring unit. Garbus appears to be moving beyond solo bedroom cut 'n' splice composition into a more collective style of songwriting. She has a penchant for painting her face with bright tribal-style streaks, to match the urban-hollering exultation of her somewhat robust singing style. This evening's color was yellow. Her band mates also joined her with sympathetic slashes of brightness.
Whilst the tUnE-yArD's recorded works often conceal its sonic sources in a wild collage of cacophonous accumulation, the onstage experience reveals the Garbus creative methods, as her songs are necessarily performed in a more traditional fashion. Well, relatively traditional. The musical parts are all generated organically, in real time, but the cumulative results are far from commonplace, residing out at the sonic vanguard. Garbus has become adept at instant looping with her bare tootsies, setting up multiple percussion parts with a minimalist standing-kit, then adding vocal layers as she strums punky ukulele riffs. These mostly possess a compulsively atonal jaggedness, hurtling out of a no-wave time tunnel. A well-timed toe-tap could pause the percussion, then ram back in the song's full complement a few bars later. There's a pronounced field-recording intention, recalling Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (Reprise/Ada, 1969) period, as well as the ethnic vocal capturings of New York composer Meredith Monk.
It's also possible that Garbus has simply experienced these methods at source, whether through the Baka pygmies, the far-northern Sami people or the indigenous Americans of her own land. Whichever way, she's now expert at polyphonic hocketing, either via said tribal folks, or maybe just via The Slits.
Garbus looked behind her, observing that she could keep time during her set by glancing up at the huge CNN digital clock looming outside to stage right. The rapport between this front woman and her band has grown significantly during the last year or two. She favors the unusual line-up of just electric bass and a saxophone horn section, although bassist Nate Brenner also shifts over to keyboards and occasional percussion. Matt Nelson and Noah Bernstein-Hanley are the tenor/alto twosome.
Garbus is surely one of the very few artists this season to begin her program notes by asking "what is American?" Unsurprisingly, it was the more aggressively jittery ditties that rose up from the songbook, notably "Gangsta" and "Bizness," but the calmer treacle-slow, reggae-oid "Powa" also had a bewitching pull. She's perfected the ease with which the elements of her songs are re-created, built-up, then incorporated into the actual top-layer of ultra-live vocal delivery. She manages to wed a primal raggedness to an always-on-the-mark, note-hitting swoop. The songs are radically experimental, but still harbor old-fashioned, bare-bone structures, rife with melodic content. Our young ears have become attuned to the instantaneous cutting-up that's facilitated by the hard-disc editing process.