OAKLAND — We live in the future.
Sure, people focus on the fact that we don’t have flying cars, and that our hoverboards neither hover nor are boards, but if someone from the past saw the modern world, they’d be utterly blown away.
Tune-Yards is a perfect example. Their show Friday night at Oakland’s Fox Theater is exactly what 1985 thought concerts would look and sound like in 2018. From the heavy use of looping and synths to the chaotic ballet of tightly-choreographed robotic lights changing color on the beat, the set was a scene from a William Gibson novel come to life.
From a raised platform in the center of the stage the singer, mastermind, and Oakland resident Merrill Garbus conducted the proceedings. Holding a microphone in one hand, tapping out a beat on a drum machine with a glowing drumstick in the other, and pressing loop pedals with her foot so that she could sing three-part harmonies with herself, watching Garbus keep all the moving parts working together was as compelling as the music.
The setlist mostly drew from their latest album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, released just last month. Fast-paced songs like “Look At Your Hands” and “ABC 123,” early in the show, and “Heart Attack” and “Colonizer,” later in the show, kept the sold-out crowd dancing. A string of more mellow, older songs provided a welcome break in the middle, highlighting Garbus’ nearly operatic singing voice at the expense of some of the cyberpunk production values.
Garbus was, however, not the first act of the night to use loop pedals. That honor goes to one-woman act Sudan Archives. Without the big production, she had to rely on musicality, and she did that in spades.
Her first song was right on the edge of being as much performance art as music, and I mean that as a compliment. She made more different noises with her violin than I thought it was even capable of making, then looped them all on top of each other in an increasingly cacophonous wave of sound. It was a hypnotic experience, doing what few opening acts can do: Pull people in from the bar right from the start.
From there the rest of her set was less experimental but no less compelling. Her vocals were the star, but the sound she got from her violin was unlike anything I’ve heard and added another layer to the ethereal nature of the music. Percussion was provided by a backing track, though she would frequently tweak it, playing it almost as an instrument unto itself.
Sandwiched between the two was San Francisco-based Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. A more traditional alternative rock band, the placement served as an excellent musical palate cleanser between the two electronic-focused acts.
That’s not to say they weren’t a great addition to the lineup in their own right. Led by Thao Nguyen, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s sound ranged from almost bordering on folk rock, all the way to almost bordering on grunge. In fact, their last song of the night, “Meticulous Bird,” which was dedicated to survivors of sexual assault, hit highs of emotional power that reminded me of Rage Against the Machine.
Like Tune-Yards and Sudan Archives, Thao’s music could get cacophonous. But unlike Tune-Yards’ symphony of lights and loops, and unlike Sudan’s slow build, Thao’s chaos was entirely rock and roll. It was the chaos of a live band and an engaged crowd: of a guitar, bass, and drums making noises that click into one bigger noise.
What separated the band from your standard-issue rock and roll, however, were Thao’s vocals. Sounding closer to Fiona Apple than Joan Jett, she added an unexpected but not unwelcome layer to the music. Harmonizing with keyboard player Johanna Kunin adds yet another layer, pulling it from blues closer to pop.
All in all, the three made for a well-balanced bill, building from dreamlike violins and loops, to rock and roll, to a concert scene from an episode of Altered Carbon. The variety of sounds and genres, but with some subtle commonalities, led to an all-around excellent show.
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