St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, Basia Bulat
I’m not a huge music lover. I don’t have a favorite band. I don’t have an artist that I grew up with, was embarrassed of, or saw grow into a full fledged musical genius. I don’t have a band who I followed, went to tiny clubs to see, bought obscure t-shirts of, and watched sell-out to a giant record company and then become less relevant to my personal taste. I’m not a huge music lover. I do, however, listen to music. I’ve always listened to music. At first whatever the parents had on the radio; usually pop, disco, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Yes, Meatloaf…whatever. My dad worked in a record store when I was a kid, so he had a lot of albums. Albums that I never listened to. As I got older I started listening to my brother’s music; REM, The Cure, Morrissey, 10000 Maniacs…whatever was on WDRE (on the radio), or 120 Minutes & Alternative Nation (on MTV).
I can’t say that I ever really got music, though. That is until Tom Waits. That’s a story for another time. Point is, now I’m very interested in music, though I’m still not all that interested in rock shows. I’ve been to them. I go to them, but few and far between. I did happen to go to a show this weekend at Central Park’s free Summerstage series.
I accompanied ArtSparrow, who is way more into music than I am, and the musical line-up was diverse and worthy of exploration.
If you had told me that there was a woman/group named Basia Bulat out there, and that I was going to see her perform, I would probably call you a liar to your face. Yet, there I was, at Summerstage, watching a young woman from Canada, a young woman of Polish descent, a young woman named Basia Bulat and her band performing right in front of me.
Bulat’s music is heavily inspired by Americana and Roots music, with almost militaristic drums, melancholy violin, and melodic string instruments like mandolins and auto-harps; I could almost see a lonely and grim cowboy galloping over the plains. It’s American Roots music channeled through a very grateful Canadian, and it turned out to be a great set. But some of these songs, particularly a cover song titled “I’m So Depressed” (written by Abner Jay) fit Bulat like a suit that’s too big. Some of these songs are clothing she needs to grow into, but add a few world-weary years to her vocal chords and she’ll be downright amazing. An accomplished musician for a woman so young, Bulat ran from guitar, to ukulele, to autoharp, to hammered dulcimer, to piano all without skipping a beat. Definitely one to watch!
While it was probably St. Vincent that everyone else was there to see, ArtSparrow and I came to see Merrill Garbus’ sound experiment tUnE-yArDs. It’s hard to explain Garbus’ music; it’s almost as if Ella Fitzgerald was raised by Riot Grrls and then trained by African Wizard-Shamans. She’s an amazing talent, and I’ve never been to a show where a virtually unknown performer held such sway over both the crowd and her own band. Coming to the stage in blue warpaint, and wearing what looked like her grandmother’s party dress, Garbus created full background percussion and vocals using samples and loops done right there on the spot. She conjured up noises, sound, and melody, all with an infectious grin on her face. Then she brought out the band: A three-piece horn section, a three-piece drum section, and a guitarist. I’ve never seen a band so enamored of their lead until now, they seemed hinged on her every move, taking her cues with ease, adding layers to her layers and creating something simply unique. They also wore warpaint.
I can’t recommend tUnE-yArDs highly enough, and while the album is excellent, I think that one needs to see her perform in person to get the full experience. If even just to see that energy in action.
If tUnE-yArDs is a band that you need to see live, then St. Vincent is a group that you can safely sit at home and enjoy. I’m almost tempted to say that the allure of St. Vincent seems to begin and end with front woman Annie Clark’s beauty. I suppose I just did say it, and while I’m sure she has a some fans based solely on her looks, she’s definitely got fans based on her musical talents as well; because she’s got those in spades. I just don’t feel like she’s pushing herself enough. Each time it seemed as if she got to the point of full-on rock out explosion she pulled back into the safety of her signature sound; an almost Disney-ish guitar rock. The whole first portion of her set sounded like one long song and the most interesting thing about it was that she was having some trouble with her guitar levels and it was producing a high wine of feedback. Repetitive music, played by distracted musicians. It was about when she brought out a string section, which I can only assume she did to really cement that Disney quality, that ArtSparrow and I left the main field and hit the bleachers to grab some beer and pizza.
A few more songs in the set got better, a bit darker and a little less constrained, as Clark and crew worked out the technical problems. A good performance, but not a great one, and definitely not a headlining performance in my opinon.