"There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand / And like I've never felt before..."
The last time Merrill Garbus' tUnE-yArDs stopped off in Dublin, soon after the release of sophomore LP w h o k i l l, the band played Whelans. Since then, the appearance of that record near the business end of many end-of-year lists – coupled with a strong word-of-mouth live reputation – has greatly added to Garbus' pulling power. It's hardly surprising, then, that tonight's European tour-opening Button Factory show should prove to be a sellout.
First up, though, are local bass'n'drums duo Thread Pulls. Guitarist/vocalist Gavin Duffy stalks the stage with undeniable purpose, his raspishly unpredictable snarl casting hime as a more sober and focused Mark E. Smith and providing an ideal foil for Peter Matbury's precise motorik drumming. On paper, the pair's propulsive, krautrock-tinged sound ought to have torn down the walls; sadly, however, the droning intensity of tracks like 'How to Talk' and 'Weight' (from debut album New Thoughts) is somewhat diluted by the combination of a mid-sized venue and a predominantly indifferent crowd. Maybe next time...
By contrast, The Button Factory's relative roominess only serves to amplify the vibrant energy and inventive spirit already inherent in tUnE-yArDs' music. Let's be honest, it would be quite easy for this lot to come across as pretentious or self-indulgent. Here, after all, is a band whose stage setup tonight consists of a ukelele, an array of loop pedals, a bassist sporting a post-ironic sweatband and not one, but two saxophones. Likewise, the group's polyrhythmic Afro-beat sound (not to mention their Kinshasa-via-Williamsburg tribal face paint) risks inviting allegations of bandwagon-jumping. Garbus, though, has actually 'been there and done that': as a student she spent time in Kenya studying traditional forms of indigenous music and poetry, a spell that kindled in her a heartfelt love for East African thumb pianos and non-Western vocal patterns.
It's a genuine passion that's clearly evident from the off tonight. Opening number 'Party Can' features some downright impressive gymnastic yodelling, while pounding drums and a furious call-and-response refrain of “DO YOU WANNA LIVE?” make it abundantly clear that we can, indeed, party.
This upbeat intro spills over into the technicolour rush of game-changing single 'Bizness' and the utterly danceable beatfest that is 'Gangsta', a wall of looped vocal wails creating a shrill siren effect. 'Riotriot', arguably w h o k i l l's most outré number, then sees the singer attacking her uke with all her might before the sultry 'Powa' gets hips swaying. Elsewhere, 'Doorstep' is a loose-limbed delight on which the influence of previous touring companions Dirty Projectors can clearly be felt, while the brilliant 'Fiya' (from 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs LP) erupts with a bushfire stomp, Garbus' brassy vocal almost rendering all that sax redundant.
The one minor disappointment tonight arrives in the form of the encore-opening 'You Yes You', which feels strangely flat compared with much of what's come before, although the inevitable pockets of audience chatter don't exactly help. Thankfully, then, anti-anthem 'My Country' succeeds in bringing the show to a pogoing close, its carnival rhythm making us all wish the weekend was only just starting instead of coming to an end.
Part of what drew people to tUnE-yArDs' music in the first place was Garbus' resolute determination to plough her own furrow (look at that bonkers typography, for crying out loud!), subverting 'lo-fi' norms in the process and proving that experimental need not mean inaccessible. Now that she's got the party-starting tunes – as well as a rock-solid live band – to go with that restless vision, there just might be no stopping her. This year's summer festival season is surely tUnE-yArDs' for the taking.
tUnE-yArDs has just announced a live date at Dublin's Vicar Street on July 15, as well as a mid-August appearance at this year's Summer Sundae Weekender in Leicester.
Go here to view a gallery of Mark Earley's live shots from The Button Factory, featuring both bands in action.