What is it that makes for a truly brilliant live performance? A voice equally as capable in low and high registers, with the power to bring a room to attention and the subtlety to convey extremes of emotion? A musician talented enough to write and record her music solo, who rather than use a backing track, uses those instruments building the song like a skilled and swift engineer? A personality so humble, fun-loving and infectious, that those in their presence are willing accomplices to a cult-like state of adoration? Or is it a catalogue of material that demonstrates a song writing skill so nuanced that brilliance is maintained over a number of song-writing palettes. After tUnE-yArDs appearance at the Free Butt (RIP) in 2009 – which still ranks as this writer’s finest live music experience in this city – those assembled’s, entranced, “once in a lifetime reaction” led to the belief that it is all these things.
That show was promoting the overlooked brilliance of that year’s 4AD released debut album BiRd-BrAiNs. The record was written entirely solo by Merill Garbus and recorded on a Dictaphone, before being mixed using shareware. Sure, it was lo-fi – annoyingly so at times – but songs such as the DIY trip-hop of ‘Lions,’ the ukulele led ultra-minimal, showcase of her vocal talent ‘News’ and especially the build and release drama of the heartbreaking ‘Fiya’ marked her out as a serious songwriting talent. By the time 2011’s w h o k i l l arrived, Garbus had found a kindred spirit in the form of bassist Nate Brenner. The second record was an upgrade on the first in both songwriting and production, with the three most accessible tracks ‘Gangsta,’ ‘Powa‘ and ‘Bizness‘ all sounding like exciting modern pop songs, albeit delivered in her quirky fashion. By the time the tour for w h o k i l l came round to The Haunt the band had picked up three touring saxophonist’s and any reduction in the intimacy of the performance was more than compensated by the high quality of the new material.
This year has seen the release of Nikki Nack and it’s a further improvement on an already fantastic formula. Another increase in the production values is allied to the dialing up of the already present African influences has produced a more focused effort than the occasionally bewildering array of styles of before. Her image has had something of an overhaul as well. The shy girl in the unassuming trousers and jumper of the Free Butt is now a sassy, confident modern pop star as demonstrated genius video for recent single ‘Water Fountain.’ The Concorde 2 is merely the next step on her journey to the really big venues.