I've been to maybe 100 shows at Crescent Ballroom, yet I've never seen the place so packed for an opener. Someone screamed, "We're here for you," so apparently Sylvan Esso has some fans in town. Their glockenspiel samples and soft, pitter-patter vocals made Esso feel like a modern version of Portishead, except Beth Gibbons uses real fucking drums. Take some notes, Esso.
I only want to ask Sylvan Esso one thing: what exactly does a "morning star" feel like? I have no idea, but Esso decided to repeat their empathy for distant dawning suns ad nauseam -- "I feel like the morning star." Their next track borrowed a Benny Benassi-like beat, but with lyrics about "head and shoulders, knees and toes," making it feel mixed by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Esso followed up with slowed down 8-bit music, which made me realize you could create an entire new genre this way. Just take chiptune, splice it with Boards of Canada and you get chip-hop. Only problem? No one would want to listen to it.
While Sylvan Esso wasn't my thing, it's obvious people were ecstatic to see these guys. The aura of gaiety was prevalent and the amount of joy they set off was more important than how derivative they might be. Only, once tUnE-yArDs took the stage, that bliss was scaled up to 11.
Ms. Garbus opened with several abstract tongue exercises, something that I've only seen Matthew Dear practice before. It's a great way to draw in your audience with Dadaist utterings, and a fantastic preview of the vocal gymnastics to come. I expected great, erratic, ridiculous things from tUnE-yArDs. They delivered.
The stage was dressed up in felt eyeballs, and the band wore flashy, chic clothes that evoked both Disney and M.I.A. Androgyny was the theme of the night, and that was actually really effective. Not sure what makes acts like Yacht or David Bowie better by distorting gender, but it at least keeps your eyes glued forward.
There are sometimes things about a band you don't realize until you see them live. The sirens in "Gangsta" suddenly made sense as Garbus transported us to a ghetto paradise. And I guess I never caught the existential angst prevalent in tUnE-yArDs music. On "Hey Life," Garbus is counting down the days until she dies. On "Bizness" she begs some corporate overlord, "don't take my life away."
On "Time of Dark," Garbus became a snake charmer, with her back-up vocalists shrieking in transcendental warbles as their mutated vocals combined to shred time and space like so much Parmesan. But without a doubt "Water Fountain" was the highlight of the show. Here, the crowd seemed to dissolve the most.
While the audience and the performance were above average from what you can ask from Phoenix, I realized midway that this show needed more horns. For their performance on NPR's Tiny Desk, they had two saxes -- tonight, they had zero reeds. Maybe I've been listening to too much Bacchus or Jerusafunk, but lately I've got a craving for tooting instruments and I don't mean fucking ska.
While dancing, I thought a lot about the negative scrutiny that Garbus seems to receive and how unfair most of it is. A lot about Ms. Garbus has been called into question. Her sexuality, her gender, her authenticity. Yet, one thing I realized no one has tried to cross-examine is whether Garbus does drugs or not. I mean, even if her personal life is none of our business, her inspiration is the kind of frenetic cut-and-paste that most people normally associate with strong entheogens. So it's kind of strange that no one has called her a druggie, as stupid as such a label would be to begin with.
But after this show, I can be sure of one thing -- at the very least, Ms. Garbus does not smoke anything, because that would devastate her ravishing vocals. I've never seen a performer so elastic with the way she stretches her lungs. It was nothing short of astonishing. Sometimes the music would swell to a roar, but you could always pick out debris from the sonic tornado.
Without a doubt, Tune-Yards has been one of the best shows I've seen this year. As many people want to cut her down, she really proved she is the "Real Thing" and it wasn't by telling so much as it was showing.
Last Night: Sylvan Esso, tUnE-yArDs at Crescent Ballroom
The Crowd: Kind of boring, honestly, but enthusiastic at least. Y'all need to dress up more and pretend it's not Tuesday night. That's the whole point of selling out a venue mid-week -- acting like it's Saturday every night.
Personal Bias: I recently learned that Merrill is a hero to many women I am lucky enough to know.
Overheard: "We couldn't have asked for a better first show in Phoenix," Sylvan Esso told us. I do hope they return -- even if I'm not their biggest fan, it was obvious to me that there are plenty willing to fill that role in the Valley of the Sun. Follow Troy Farah on Twitter, I guess.
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