Last week I ventured over to Bowery Ballroom for one of those rare shows where I’m excited about not just one, not only two, but three bands on a bill. I timed things just right to miss openers Twin Sisters–sorry guys, I’m getting too old to stand around for three bands as it is, so four is out of the question–and made it in time to catch the beginning of Zola Jesus’s set. I’ve been digging the lo-fi gothy chill of their album The Spoils and their (somewhat cleaner) new EP, Stridulum. I was curious to see whether singer Nika Roza Danilova’s voice, haunting and drenched in reverb on record, would come across live. It did–and then some. The band could stand to loosen up a bit on stage and to vary the pace of their set, which could fairly be described as plodding at some points. But hey, they’re still fairly new, and Nika turned all of 21 the night of the show. So they have plenty of time to perfect their already impressive sound.

But this night was really all about the next band, tUnE-yArDs. tUne-yArDs is basically Merrill Garbus, who’s joined on stage by bassist Nate Brenner. Her full-length and EP are both great, so I figured I was in for a good show, but, even so, I was totally, totally blown away by her set. She plays a deconstructed drum kit (just a floor tom and snare) and a ukelele and makes ample use of a loop pedal to form a surprisingly big sound for a two-person band. The tunes are super-catchy, often incorporating crypto-hiphop or -reggae rhythms and really unusual hooks, with Garbus’s looped vocals swirling in and out to create all kinds of unusual harmonic backdrops.

And speaking of her voice…the lady has serious–like truly fucking powerful–pipes. She alternates between low, raspy calm and practically unbalanced shouting, and generously spreads odd vocalizations throughout the songs–kind of like Nina Simone if the High Priestess of Soul had had more of a penchant for yodeling. And as if the stunning musical and singing talent weren’t enough, well, Garbus, like her music, is just so frickin’ infectiously likable! She explained, in a way that didn’t seem the slightest bit contrived, that she always gets nervous when she plays in New York–and then, of course, she proceeded to bring the house down. In fact, when she announced her last song, the audience protested loudly, and when she left the stage the applause was so overwhelming and sustained that it seemed to take a couple of minutes for the house to remember that she wasn’t the last act and that there was no time for an encore. Alas!

And then there was Xiu Xiu, who were, well, very Xiu Xiu. I’ve seen them live twice and at both shows there was at least one moment where someone in the audience broke out into uncomfortable laughter during one of the more precious, hushed portions of the performance. Clearly these folks were grappling with the question anyone familiar with Xiu Xiu’s over-the-top artiness faces early on–is this dude sincere, fucking with me, or somewhere in between? In general, I can handle this schtick, and there are plenty of moments in both their shows and their records that I like quite a lot. But at this particular show, their overwrought, angst-ridden affect fell flat, coming as it did on the heels of Garbus’s genuine affability.

And on that note, here are a couple of tUnE-yArDs clips, one from this show and one of Garbus alone at the Natural History Museum in LA:


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