Photography by Philip Cosores
Cinco de Mayo in Los Angeles is, well, probably less obnoxious than in the rest of the country due to its massive Mexican-American population (apparently we started its celebration in America). It’s also a day that is very easy to miss unless you walk into a bar and notice it abnormally crowded for 7 p.m. on a Monday. Even Olvera Street, a historic landmark that celebrates Mexican culture in Los Angeles, didn’t appear overly crowded or celebratory, even though the Internet tells me there was a Cinco de Mayo festival happening on Olvera Street. But still, not a single pancho, sombrero, or fake mustache was witnessed at the tUnE-yArDs concert or on the way there, and the world was better for it.
This was likely facilitated by the nature of Los Angeles which, like many large diverse cities, breed an elevated awareness as how to not piss each other off. Not to imply that racism doesn’t still exist in these cities or that we’ve gone “color-blind” or something ridiculous, but it is just something that is really easy not to think about (probably more-so for me as a light skinned person, so for other perspectives, you’d have to ask them). At the concert, held at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a mix of black, Asian, Latino, and white fans wasn’t even something I considered until well after the event, nor was it strange to see the ages spanning from the college age to the white haired. But, even in Los Angeles, some more racially diverse turnouts do surprise, and tUnE-yArDs by its nature, i.e. influences that are not necessarily white, was not one of these. The ideal cultural and racial crucible of the future will hopefully look and feel something like this show. And that means there will be dancing.
See, the fun part and drawback to seeing tUnE-yArDs at this moment in time was that Nicki Nack, the third proper LP from the project, was still a day away from release. Sure, it has been leaked and streaming for a week, but there was still the truth that many of the audience members for the sold out tour launch show weren’t familiar yet with the new songs, which made up the majority of the music played. So, they danced. They put their arms in the air and moved their feet and celebrated unfamiliarity without many inhibitions. The nature of Merrill Garbus’ music is that despite themes that can be considered activism, the music sounds fun and the performances are geared to fun and even if you have no idea how the songs go, you can still have fun.
The movement turned the room into a sort of sauna, with Garbus referring to it as the “petri dish.” But, this carried more weight for Garbus besides the obvious association — as a place that could grow bacteria because the moisture and heat. She meant more that the night was still an experiment, as these songs had only been played on her opening tour with Arcade Fire, which allowed for much less music than this headlining show. And the experiment went pretty well, with the songs needing the band to shuffle from a five person lineup, which loses the W H O K I L L horn section in favor of three female backing singers, one of whom plays drums, to a three member lineup, to a two-person core for a song like “Powa”, Garbus’ best song. “Powa” is that ace up her sleeve, in which she showcases the incredible range of her voice, and last night it worked as an intimate centerpiece to the set, assisted by her co-writer, bassist Nate Brenner.
Already, tUnE-yArDs has a twice-as-big show scheduled for June 5th in Hollywood, as this one sold out in mere minutes, all adding to the feeling of the band becoming something less on the periphery of culture and more in the fast lane. The looping is still incorporated but less so. Garbus’ stage attire is getting more flamboyant and over-the-top, and the ukelele is barely seen at all. Watching opener Moses Sumney, a rising local guitar looper and vocal experimenter that seemed to come naturally from the tUnE-yArDs school of sound, it wasn’t hard to remember when Garbus had been a solo act opening shows in a similar fashion. There was a time when tUnE-yArDs was seen as a mere Dirty Projectors knock-off, now it’s harder to point out the similarities than their differences.
In this light, the progression of Garbus is as impressive as it gets. But, like the cultural diversity that surrounds her, this is but an afterthought. In the moment, tUnE-yArds is about dancing, about making faces, about screaming, about protesting, about making noise, about being yourself, about celebration. And on Cinco de Mayo, it felt very appropriate in the most non-traditional of ways.