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The Rock Shop may have been open for a couple of months now, but last night's show marked the official party to celebrate the new Park Slope venue (the first show happened a month earlier). The Rock Shop is kind of like a smaller version of the Mercury Lounge (minus the door between the bar and the show space). There's a bar lining the wall as you walk in, and the concert space is in the back. There are even benches lining both walls like at the Mercury Lounge. But the Rock Shop benefits by having additional space upstairs with large open windows that look onto 4th Ave.
For such a small room (max capacity 120) the bill was pretty solid thanks in part to the venue's booker, Skippy McFadden, who formerly booked artists at both the Bell House and Union Hall. Just Sunday night, the 'surprise' headliner, tUnE-yArDs, opened for St. Vincent in Central Park.
But first up was a short set by a last-minute addition, Pat Jordache. Jordache and his two-man backing band (including the drummer of The Acorn) are apparently friends with tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, who danced a bit in the crowd during their set. With a full line-up of women scheduled for the evening, it was nice to get a little testosterone in the mix, too.
I expected the two main openers to put on a good show, but I hadn't heard a thing about Lady Lamb & the Beekeeper. Given the clunky and cutesy name, I was somewhat skeptical going into the set, but singer-songwriter Aly Spaltro quickly won me over with her beautiful lyrics, husky voice, guitar playing skills, and earnest little kid-like eyes. Unlike the other artists on the bill, Aly powered through her set alone. There were no bells and whistles, just a girl and a couple of guitars, and the result was stunning. Ally's voice is deep and raw. During the dramatic parts of her songs she rocks out on her electric guitar and nearly sings herself hoarse. Then without warning her voice becomes soft and sweet.
Up next was the Brooklyn transplant, Sharon Van Etten, who masterfully crafts heartbreaking (but ultimately triumphant) songs. Sharon began her first song solo, but was soon joined by her backing band, which included birthday girl Cat Martino on backing vox. Her new record, Epic, is slated to drop until October, but she had copies available for sale and showcased a number of songs during her set. The crowd responded fondly to the new material, prompting Sharon to comment, "I've never ever seen people bob their heads to my music before." She encouraged the warm, familial mood in the room by sweetly dedicating a song to her mother, who was present at the show.
Upon the conclusion of Sharon's set, the mood in the room became more frenetic in anticipation of tUnE-yArDs, the main act. After setting up the beat to her first song, "Hatari," Merrill Garbus offered a brief word of introduction. As the beat continued to pulse through the speakers, she inquired, "Can you dance to it?" before continuing, "Not that New Yorkers dance. I know you don't dance. Only in your bathrooms after you've pooped... Oh, New Yorkers don't poop." And with a knowing laugh from the crowd, she began to sing.
It's hard to know what to say about Merrill Garbus' dramatic musical project tUnE-yArDs that hasn't already been said. Either you're down with the tribal-like beats, fierce delivery, and zany presentation or you're talking at the back of the bar. Either way, seeing Merrill perform is an experience. When the stage allows for it, she takes advantage of the space and surrounds herself with a host of musical collaborators, but there was no room for a drum circle on the Rock Shop's small stage. Instead, Merrill handled the percussion herself, looping together upwards of 7 or 8 tracks at a time to create a rich, full-bodied sound. Merrill was also accompanied by Nate Brenner on bass and, for a few songs, a trio of brass players.
Though there were brief technical issues when Merrill began to play "Safety" on the ukulele, the audience didn't seem to mind the lull in the set. "Take your time!" "Just figure it out!" they shouted encouragingly as Merrill tried to rectify the situation. But eventually, she just had to give up. "Sorry. I just can't hear it at all. It just won't work [...] But I'll still play a good song. " And with that, she launched into the whimsical song "News."
Since she currently only has one album under her belt, Merrill has been playing many of the same songs at her shows, and the audience was fairly familiar with her material. When Merrill began to shout the question, "Do you want to live?" she was met by a resounding "YES!" before she had a chance to offer an explanation or a prompt. Fans of tUnE-yArDs will be glad to hear that new music is on the horizon. "This is the last time I will be playing this song ["Hatari"] in New York City before I finish a new album... so there," Merrill declared near the beginning of her set.
Following up her impressively strange debut BiRd-BrAiNs will be a difficult feat, but something tells me Merrill Garbus is up for the challenge.
More pictures from the show with Sharon and Merrill's setlists, below...
Lady Lamb The Beekeeper
Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten set list
Don't Do It
tUnE-yArDs set list (new song names are approximate)
What's That About?
Gangsta / My Hood
Real Live Flesh
Do You Want to Live?
Don't Take My Life Away