Photos by: Nic Buron
SF Popfest 2010 kicked off with a split bill of sorts at The Rickshaw Stop. NYC’s Knight School and Eux Autres, from SF, offered variations on bare bones guitar pop, while locals Social Studies and headliner Tune-Yards took the second half of the evening in a more refined direction.
Knight School reproduced their lo-fi singles with power, courtesy of Jedidiah Smith’s deft skills at the drumkit. Eux Autres have a few more cards in their hands. Leaders Heather and Nicholas Larimer share vocal duties, in the model of their professed idols The Vaselines. And they sing many of their songs in French. Both groups can write appealing songs. But, without denying them their due, it must be said that both are still searching for some sort of leavening agent – a sound, an approach or an energy – that would separate them from the pile of like-minded indie rockers.
Social Studies, as their name implies, take a more academic approach. Their songs are tightly arranged around quick changes in tempo and mood. Balancing a polished, chamber-pop sound with drive and volume, they sometimes evoke the English band Broadcast, but with a more emotive and romantic quality.
Singer-keyboardist Natalia Rogin, whose husky but sweet voice runs a gamut from suggestive to soaring with ease and control, is their main asset. They also know how to have fun onstage, and the crowd responded in kind. A cover of The Grass Roots’ “Live for Today” capped off their set with a bang.
The last time Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-Yards)Â played the Rickshaw a year ago, she was accompanied only by her tenor ukelele, some drums, a loop pedal and, for a few songs, by bassist Nate Brenner. She leveled the crowd with her uncanny skill for creating multi-layered songs by herself and it seemed that everyone in the audience went home with one of her hand-printed LPs. It was clear even then that she possessed some traditional strengths: a singular, thrilling voice and songwriting talent. But it was the unique method of song construction that stood out.
This time, she surprised old fans by bringing a 7-piece band – Brenner, three percussionists, keyboard and two saxes. She began where she left off, re-creating “Hatari” from the afforementiond “Bird Brains” on her own. From that point however, the band kicked in and the loops settled into the background. In the more organic setting, Garbus’ voice and her songs took center stage.
It was the perfect move. Just when it seems that everyone is using loops, Tune-Yards is downplaying gimmickry and evolving into one of the true gems of our moment. Her emotionally naked singing, that gravelly, multi-personaed voice and her synthesis of soul, folk and rock music are matched by her ability to move a crowd and orchestrate a performance. Her new material – of which there is still not a lot – moves gently further towards classic soul and reggae, which the horn section underscored to thrilling effect.
So often, returning to the scene of a great show can be a let down. But on rare occasions, the second time around is better, and when it is, it’s one of music’s greatest gifts. Tune-Yards appears to be making all the right moves so far. She is maturing in a sequence, rather than abandoning or knee-jerking. Her progress is natural, just as her music becomes more natural. And she sounds fantastic. Her new label, 4AD, has released but one single. I can’t wait to hear the next full-length album.