tUnE-yArDs @ TheChapel, 4/21/14 - Photo by Jon Ching

tUnE-yArDs played The Chapel last night to a lucky select few who either caught wind of the last minute show announcement in time to grab tickets online or those who were punctual enough to snatch the limited number of tickets held for the door. Either way, everyone who got in was not only lucky to see tUnE-yArDs perform their first show in almost two years, right before the start of their jampacked US and European tours, but to see it for free. Hosted by Converse Rubber Tracks Live, a free concert series supporting emerging and established artists globally, we got a taste of what Merrill Garbus has been building since we last heard from her and tUnE-yArDs in 2011.

Let’s just clear the air right away–the new work sounds great. Last night’s set was primarily from tUnE-yArDs’ forthcoming album, Nikki Nack, which will be released in exactly two weeks on May 6th. The fresh tracks continue to display the band’s African influences and looped drum beats in a more informed and matured way, with ever recognizable bass lines delivered by Nate Brenner. The drums, which had more of a melodic and foundational presence on their last album w h o k i l l, now punctuate the beat harder, creating a catchy, and at times almost hip hop dance rhythm that made me move like I already knew the songs. With an added drummer on stage, the drums had more dimension and dominance.

Garbus’ vocal prowess was strong and beautiful, simultaneously scary and playful as one would expect. But her belting and overall delivery were stronger and deeper than before, and it’s clear that she has mastered how to control and direct the strength of her voice with confidence and precision. Her animated facial expressions were a delight to see in person and actually made her already loud voice more booming, if that’s even possible. Two backup singers have been introduced on this tour, which added beautiful harmonies and range to the new tUnE-yArDs sound, not to mention a lot more movement and glittery face paint that sparkled under the stage lights.

In addition to displaying well-written songs, the band also showed the time spent rehearsing a tight live show. Vocals and drum beats had spot-on timing, with Garbus and her singers exchanging notes while drumming seemingly spontaneous patterns in sync. Despite it being their debut performance, they had rehearsed to a point past nervousness and were clearly enjoying themselves. Exchanging smiles, winks and even questioning eyebrow raises, it was clear that the five band members were having fun on stage in front of their fans, excited to start the long tour ahead of them. Naturally, there were a few kinks to work out, but the band seemed to laugh them off and find the fun in the process.

Before this show, I was already excited to see tUnE-yArDs play The Fillmore in June (the first night is already sold out and the second night is sure to sell out too!) before even hearing a track off the new album. But now, not only am I dying to listen to the new album on non-stop repeat, I’m ecstatic to see how this already great live show grows when they return to San Francisco in the middle of their highly anticipated tour.