“You know, we weren’t sure how this record would do,” says Merrill Garbus, of Nikki Nack, about 45 minutes in to her sold-out show last night at Union Transfer. “We thought maybe it was a little weird.” “It is weird!” yells a guy from the crowd. “But that is why we love it!” Garbus grins. Over the past 5 years, the Oakland-based artist known as tUnE-yArDs has transitioned: from a quirky fringe artist looping vocals in her bedroom, to a touring monolith—who is as revered for her creativity as her live chops. Her newest record, Nikki Nack, earned rave reviews from critics, and peaked at Number 27 on the U.S. charts, leading to sold-out shows across the country. Last night, she proved exactly why, treating fans to a fun, energetic, and inspired set that had the crowd singing and dancing along.
“I try not to think about it,” said Garbus, a few days back, when I asked her how her new found popularity makes her feel. “It’s kinda weird.” It’s weird—I’m assuming—because she grew up on the fringe, doing experimental puppet shows and recording tapes full of strange loops. But in another way it’s perhaps not weird at all, coming from a culture that’s already embraced Animal Collective, and The Dirty Projectors, and M.I.A., and other artists who are challenging our notions of pop. Nikki Nack is an odd, quirky record with meaningful inspiration, for sure—but it’s also a pop record, filled with cathartic belters like “Time of Dark,” bangers like “Sink-O,” and reggae-tinged bbq fodder like “Stop That Man”—which live felt like a futuristic luau, with Garbus as its spirited emcee.
“Sink-O” and “Time of Dark” were both set highlights too—the former a raucous, emphatic opener that immediately sent the couple next to me into hardcore grind mode—and the latter a refreshing romp through jittery harmonies and Garbus’s powerhouse vocals. Her unusual stage set-up consisted of myriad eyeballs—pasted on the back wall, and draped over keyboards—and strips of pink, flowy fabric, strung across the back wall like waves. She was joined by bassist and long-time collaborator Nate Brenner, plus a drummer and two back-up singers (poached from the Oakland theatre scene), who together added to her futuristic circus, through harmonies, hand-claps, and choreographed dance movements.
In about an hour, Garbus ricocheted through 12 songs, trading her synth for uke for older material like “Powa” (which felt both beautiful and impassioned) and “Bizness” (which sent the crowd into hysterics). “Water Fountain”—the debut single off Nikki Nack—was an exuberant, Afro-pop explosion, and when it transitioned to closer “Find a New Way,” we were all dancing and singing along as if these songs had come out years ago, and not just one month back.
And one more great thing about Merrill too. She’s extremely talented, and creative, and a force to behold on stage, for sure. But she’s also surprisingly down-to-earth (or as down to earth as one can be while covered in day-glow face paint). There’s sometimes a tendency for art-rock—and its fans—to adopt an air of pretension—yet Sunday night was all about accessibility and good times. “I truly feel like what people are interested in these days is great music that is also concerned with tough issues,” said Garbus, in our interview. I think she’s right. The people are ready for interesting pop—and luckily for us, tUnE-yArDs are here.
2. Hey Life
4. Real Thing
6. Time of Dark
7. Real Live Flesh
8. Stop That Man
10. Water Fountain
11. Find a New Way