If there is one way Merrill Garbus makes her existence known to the world, it’s through the pounding of her drums. At least, that’s where it starts. There’s also loop machines, layers of voices (sometimes out and out screams) all declaring with childlike stubbornness her right to be on this earth. On Tuesday night, she took the stage at the Crofoot with her small army of back up singers and staked this claim, performing her songs more powerfully than the album versions could ever convey.
The stage set-up was cheeky and childlike: A pink backdrop of different-sized eyeballs with glitter irises and teeth that looked like they were cut out of construction paper. Garbus was sporting short, bleach-blonde hair, a red dress with a sparkly gold back and sleeves, and a little bit of red-and-gold face paint. The accompanying band were a colorful cast of characters that were lovingly mismatched: Vocalist Abigail Nessen-Bengson wore a black tank top and black leather skirt, vocalist Jo Lampert was dressed in a large print, '90s-style t-shirt, a poof of green hair sticking out the side of her head. Percussionist Dani Markham and bassist Nate Brenner bookended the stage, looking cool in Nikki Nack tour t-shirts.
They started out mid-tempo, with “Doorstep.” This was a good choice after opener James Tillman, a sweet-mannered singer/songwriter, had lulled the crowd into a languid haze with his guitar jams. The momentum began to build with “Left Behind” and “Time of Dark.” Behind her, a wall of voices grew stronger and Garbus’ own guttural howl rose with urgency. Things really got cooking with "Real Thing" and "Sink-O," Garbus making loops from her own voice, hand claps, intricate rhythms from drumsticks. There was a brief moment where she was jokingly weary of it all, after a slip that was undetectable to the crowd. “The looping pedal doesn’t lie,” she told the crowd. “Whatever you do, it doesn’t lie.”
Another playful note was their performance of “Interlude: Why Do We Dine on The Tots?” It's a satirical spoken word piece on eating children from Nikki Nack. Garbus, Nessen-Bengson, and Lampert read their lines from a piece of loose-leaf, with cartoonishly animated expressions, passing a picture frame around to enclose the face of whomever was talking.
During the second half of the show, the energy reached a high point in a stretch of songs from WHOKILL
, their 2011 release. “Powa” was especially resonant, the excitement trickling through the crowd as soon as she picked up her ukelele for the opening chords. Next came "Esso," where Garbus included a mouth-gaping scream in the song’s clunky, eccentric loop. And nothing beat "Gangsta," with its raucous, headbanging percussion and the whole crew of voices mimicking sirens.
She reminisced about her past performances at the Crofoot. “Detroit has a hometown feel, even though it’s never been my home town,” she said. “It’s a miracle that we get to do this in front of people like you.”
“We’re going to play one more song,” she said, a smile forming. “And then if you clap, we’ll come back.” They launched into “Bizness” though it was a relatively slow version of the song, the crowd was on board, dancing and yelling along with her. An encore of “Real Live Flesh” and “Stop that Man” wrapped the show. With one last monster face at the crowd, they were off.