Thinking outside the box has long been a touchstone of the bookings for the Allen Room’s New American Songbook Series, but seldom has “outside” been taken more literally than at this perf – which actually ended across the street in Central Park, via a Mardi Gras styled parade led by Tuneyards’ leader Merrill Garbus.
The gig’s finale, a combination of joyous celebration and political agitation, found the charismatic Garbus perched atop a statue at the park’s fringe, holding an “occupy” banner and delivering an impassioned, seemingly improvised speech about equality, which gave way to an a capella rendition of her song “Bizness.”
That presentation gave the song an extra relevance boost, but the entire program proved an excellent showcase for Garbus’s envelope pushing tendencies, which extend to both content and context – a conscious-yet-comic array of observations set to jarring rhythms that veer from pan-African to extra-terrestrial.
Most of the set was drawn from Tuneyards’ 2011 album “Whokill” (which won multiple year-end raves, including an album of the year win in the Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz and Jop poll). Her own triggered percussion loops provided the bulk of the backing for her ululations, which often lapsed into wordlessness but never lost their emotive grip.
Garbus’s playful attitude imbued songs like “Gangsta” (which re-imagines Taxi Driver with Yoko Ono as Travis Bickle) with a sense of confrontational loopiness. But instead of a threatened roundhouse right, she delivers something more akin to a quizzical gentle chuck to the shoulder – a reminder that she thinks of herself as a peer to aud members, rather than a budding icon.
Even so, she had the capacity crowd, and, at evening’s end, the non-paying onlookers who joined in the park portion of the program, eating out of her hand. Yes, by the time Gotham cops arrived to check out the commotion, she and her cohorts were long gone, but the memory would certainly linger for just about everyone in attendance