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Judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon; it steals the book’s chance of telling you what the story is about before you even pick it up and read the summary. The downside is that we’re human and almost always make this mistake. The upside is that it isn’t necessarily always bad. Just look at tUnE-yArDs.
The first time I shared a tUnE-yArDs song with my friend, he said he never would have listened to it had he seen the band name alone (swapping uppercase and lowercase letters immediately meant immaturity in his mind). If he were waiting for her performance at Newport Folk Festival this Sunday evening, he would have seen something different: a rug with cartoon streets drawn onto it for toy cars to drive, a metal box topped with over ten loop pedals, shiny drums, tambourines, glass bottles upside-down in a wooden stand, and two large saxophones. Judging tUnE-yArDs by what was onstage would have told him just how childish and quirky they are.
“How many of you have seen tUnE-yArDs before?” asked Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered. “Those of you who haven’t, you’ll understand why the others are so excited in just a second.” Anticipation was thick in the air and audience members were beyond excited for the show to begin. tUnE-yArDs’ frontwoman Merrill Garbus then walked onstage, waved to the crowd, and kicked off her shoes – they would only get in the way with all of the jumping she would later do, anyway.
tUnE-yArDs began their set with a quick instrumental song followed by “You Yes You” from their second album, W H O K I L L, released last year. The audience’s faces lit up when Garbus told them all to jump – and jump they did. Every band member hopped up and down in sync, rotating in circles before finishing the track. “Gangsta” followed right after, only this time the crowd was no longer shy; they right up on their own.
All those pedals are Garbus’ bare feet add different affects to what is recorded in her microphone. Most importantly, some of the pedals allow her to record music and then play it back on repeat. tUnE-yArDs’ whole sound stems from this: Garbus sings one part after another, adding them together to sound like a group of people are singing together. The crowd giggled whenever she built up the backing drum part, hitting the sticks against a drum, the rim, a cymbal, the microphone, and even the microphone stand. The buildup allows for people to clap along to the beats as they morph through funky premature stages into full-on percussion parts.
“Real Live Flesh” off of their debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was yet another song that got people up and moving, even if this was their first time hearing tUnE-yArDs. Fans of the band were easy to spot based on how early on in the building stages of the tune that they would recognize which song it was. For “Real Live Flesh”, that meant recognizing the drum part, glass bottles being tapped, the deep, grizzly bass, or the barking saxophone notes.
“I’m going to pack this hour with as much music as humanly possible,” Garbus said when realizing their end time was approaching. “My job is so much easier than yours. I can just do whatever,” she laughed, looking around at all of the instruments on the stage. The group’s performance of “Bizness” got the crowd to start screaming out of excitement. “This is so much fun,” she said before the saxophones went on their own long solos.
tUnE-yArDs’ set ended with “My Country”. “Try to have fun with this one,” grinned Garbus. Seeing the crowd clap throughout the whole song and scream loudly after bassist Nate Brenner’s vocal cameos (cheers so loud that even I was taken aback), it was safe to say they did.
“The best part about being a performer is people think you’re cool but you’re really just a huge ol’ dork,” confessed Garbus. Yes, Garbus is a little out there, but being a dork is what makes her so cool. No matter which way audience members judged her – appearance, music, or instruments – she took them by surprise, and they will certainly never forget tUnE-yArDs.