Live at The Sage, Gateshead
It could be seen as a tough job opening for Tune-yards. This is an audience that probably won't settle for run of the mill rock bands or traditional maudlin singer songwriters. Luckily, Nathalie Stern is none of those things. A one woman band who uses lo-fi synths and loops to form dark industrial soundscapes and eerie monastic chants. An adept self-harmoniser, it's interesting to see that Stern's equipment doesn't always play ball, at one point she stops a song in its tracks to start over. Stern wryly apologises: "I'm not very good with rhythm" as she restarts what is ironically the most rhythmic song of the night, a tough job when she's got no drums of any kind to work with, instead using her voice as natural percussion. Her final song (a "hip shaker" to warm us up for Tune-yards) sounds like very early human league crossed with a low rent 70s SciFi soundtrack, what's not to like about that? It's been over 2 years since Tune-yards last played this venue, on that occasion, their opening was pretty low key, with band leader Merrill Garbus gradually building up an acapella vocal loop, alone on stage. The Tune-yards show of 2015 couldn't be more different, it's an onslaught of colour, interpretive dance/yoga, electro, booming beats and bongos. It's certainly an entrance that grabs your attention, and it transforms what is otherwise an inconspicuous album track ("Sink-O") into a full blown dance-floor classic. Whilst we're on the subject of transformations, this new look Tune-yards has gone from a weirdo duo to a more traditional five-piece, although "traditional" is blatantly the wrong word when that band includes two dedicated backing vocalists and two drummers (the supremely talented Dani Markham peps up Garbus' tribal beats with a huge array of percussion). The band blast through a breathtaking first half hour with quick-fire gems from their latest album Nikki Nack: "Real Thing" shakes the tubular room with it's swirling synth and on "Time Of Dark" Nate Brenner plays a guitar solo on his bass. When they finally do break it down with some older material (with just Garbus and Brenner on stage), it almost seems like a mini anti-climax, even the wonderful "Gangsta" sounds a bit out of place amongst this electrifying new material. Perhaps it's because the new record has burrowed itself into people's ears (having been out for over a year - they took their time arranging a visit to this fair town) but more likely it's because the tunes are humongous, perfectly suited for the live stage, and (as I suspected in my review of Nikki Nack) perfectly suited for dancing, even on a Sunday night. Midway through the set, the band stop and Garbus pauses for a chat with the audience, sipping a cup of tea. It's so casual that it throws every rock banter cliché out of the window and feels like the band and the audience are in total symmetry. They end their set with "Bizness" in which the five members somehow manage to recreate the song's ridiculously intricate vocal intro (which sounds thoroughly programmed on record) without the aid of any computerised wizardry at all (at least I didn't see any going on). It's just another jaw dropping moment in a show that's full of them. As the band leave, there's a palpable energy in the room and the audience show their appreciation by stomping and chanting, essentially continuing the party whilst there's nobody on stage. Garbus is visibly emotional when she returns for a non-negotiable encore, but manages to pull herself together for a few thankyous and an icing-on-the-cake rendition of "Fiya". What better way to spend International Women's Day than by watching a band that is 80 percent woman and also happens to be the best live band around right now.