Reno slowly revealed itself to me as I cruised over the hill from the Washoe Valley at 70 mph. The neon greens, blues and pinks of the casinos and hotels in downtown stood out amidst the yellow lights of the city and the tall buildings shone like emeralds in a sea of gold. The February air was not as cold as I thought it was going to be and it was a pleasant couple of blocks from my car to Cargo Concert Hall. I slipped from underneath the night’s lights into the venue and quickly found myself in the huddle near the front of the stage.
There was a buzz in my chest and an electric charge in my legs as I scanned the crowd. We were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner to the stage, the rhythmic collagists who have synergized into Tune-Yards. Their music is an enthralling assault of rattling rhythms and wall-of-sound wizardry from loops and pedals, with a thematic reckoning of racial injustices and privilege being the fiery heart of it all. It’s captivating art that has always been funky and challenging in ways that keep the music fresh, unique and outside the box. Reno is its own little weird oasis in the desert and the city and Tune-Yards proved to be a spirited match Friday night.
The duo, along with drummer Hamir Atwal, received a warm reception as they finally strolled into their positions. Garbus stood in the center of the group with her plethora of electronics and instruments in front of a tall sheet, the light towers fanning out around her and the rest of the band like wings. The hum of the audience turned quiet as the singer floated high angelic notes through her microphone, creating a wistful loop that steered the band into “Home,” a song from the band’s latest album, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.”
The gospel quality of the loop contrasted against the brusque, atonal verses, creating a kind of dissonant hymn. “I came to get down, but you’re not telling my story,” exclaimed Garbus as the beat imploded into a proto-punk outro around her. It was an assortment of sounds and aesthetics that somehow fused together into a creative pattern primed for dancing, essentially an overview of what Tune-Yards had in store for the night. We could barely contain our excitement.
From there, the band proceeded to wow the crowd with its vibrant musical energy. The set was almost entirely made up of material from its latest release, which is usually a risky move for bands when they tour. However, the risk paid off, mainly due to the overall strength of the record itself, which represents the most cohesive and vivacious collection of songs for the group to date.
“Colonizer” was a slinky, bass-heavy track that walked amongst the calls of the wild from a digital jungle. “ABC 123” danced along to a bubbling bass line from Brenner and “Honesty” featured glimmering sampling of Garbus’ voice that bounced back and forth over a broken-glass rhythm.
“Heart Attack” was the standout of the new material, an invigorating dance track based on a soothing house groove and decorated by the polyrhythmic merger of Garbus’ lyrical phrasing and synth samples. The singer dived into DJing during the creation of Tune-Yards’ latest album and the effect could be felt in the new music, helping ground the band’s erratic rhythms into a more overall groove. Garbus surely learned some tricks on sequencing and melding songs together, as well, because the set had a solid pace and flow to it that hadn’t quite been realized before.
The band had an earnest electricity to its performance throughout the night that was reciprocated in the audience. Atwal had power and texture in his drumming and Brenner had stylistic aplomb delivering his rich bass lines, which formed the bedrock of the group’s sound. Garbus’ complex looping and pedaling was something to behold as she created all these different worlds of sound, though it was her voice that really elevated above it all. In-person her voice is way clearer and piercing than it might seem on record and it shone through with confident grace on “Powa” and bold conviction on “Water Fountain.”
The night’s show was only the second in Tune-Yards’ ongoing headlining tour and Garbus thanked the audience for its immense support group as the group worked through the new music and new tour kinks. The audience was certainly with the group the whole show, warts and all. During the intro to “Gangster” Garbus’ sampling glitched-out into silence, which prompted the whole crowd to mimic the looping siren until the singer was able to get it working again. And when she revealed, seemingly embarrassed, that the group had actually run through the night’s songs and the one-hour set was closer to ending than either the band or audience thought, she was met with a staggering cheer instead of jeers. Garbus seemed legitimately touched by the outpouring of support from Reno.
But then again, Tune-Yards and Reno share the same sensibilities. Both are unique, funky hotbeds of expression that blaze paths instead of following them. They illuminate the world with their bright and colorful personalities, attracting and accepting those who also choose to live passionately.
The lights streaked by as I carved through the city on the highway. Tune-Yards’ kaleidoscopic sounds twirled in my head as Reno passed on by. It was relatively early but I was filled with the city’s sound and color, satisfied and happy.
– Garrett Bethmann
-Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel / Tune-Yards Facebook