Vocals, percussion (LOTS of percussion), bass, two saxophones, an occasional ukulele and a looper. Those are the tools that Merrill Garbus and friends used to win over the crowds at her multiple SXSW appearances. "Win over" is probably an understatement. As I sat on the edge of the stage after her performance at the French Legation Museum this past Friday afternoon, people lined up in front of where Garbus was disassembing her extensive set up. Fan after fan, some of whom had never heard a note of her music until now, gushed as to how tUnE-yArDs was the best thing they'd seen all week, or IN THEIR ENTIRE LIVES! (The person who said this was, in fact, yelling, so the all-caps is appropriate). The night before, they'd played at the acoustically amazing Central Presbyterian Church, in front of a packed and equally (dare I say it? I dare!) reverent crowd.
The Looper is the band's secret weapon. Garbus starts most songs by building layers of African influenced percussion and vocals before proceeding to the first verse. On several numbers, the recorded loops will go silent for extended periods and then reappear after a bridge.The effect is dramatic, especially when the two saxophone players also join in.
Speaking of capital letters, some may find the band's mixed use of them annoying and pretentious, but I find it visually pleasing. Garbus says that one reason she chose to do it that way was so that critics would have to really think about what they were writing. Mission accomplished!