“What the f—k is up Asheville?” asked frontman Matt Caughthran of opening band, Mariachi El Bronx. A standard greeting for a punk show, but not a typical salutation for a mariachi band.
The octet filled the Orange Peel stage in full black suits, silver blinged-out belt buckles, and eagle embroiderery. Was this ensemble patrolling dining tables for tip-fed ballads? No, this was a mariachi band built for rousing soccer stadiums. Surprise surprise, Mariachi El Bronx is the alter-ego of Los Angeles punk veterans, The Bronx.
Still, the authenticity and soul of the mariachi was not lost on the group. Think kitschy, minus mockery. Songs like “Slave Labor” and “Cell Mate” veered from the usual “mi amour” lyrics.
Lonely horns, guitars built for coyote accompaniments and vocals both forlorn and ready for a party (think Sublime) smacked the crowd into rowdy shape.
The anticipation of tUnE-yArDs and its maestro, Merrill Garbus, was evident throughout the packed-to-capacity room. When Garbus strolled up alone, everyone knew the ex-puppeteer was preparing the audience for a journey.
Her voice was the first instrument, a sort of androgynous mix of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. The loops began, with each pitch of Garbus’s voice swirling around the other. Much like the highly influential Animal Collective, Merrill builds on a singular instrument, creating textures with each before delving into another.
The percussion ensued. Snare drum, xylophones and even the mic stand manifested into complex poly-rhythms reminiscent of Afro-Beat drum guru, Tony Allen. Garbus then introduced her soulmate, the ukulele. In her hands, the little guitar transformed into, for lack of a better word, a shredding machine. Ukulele, voices and drums all danced around the room in perfect syncopation.
Fear crept in at the thought of a full band.
Finally, the rest of tUnE-yArDs appeared: bass player (and song-writing cohort) Nate Brenner joined the fray along with two horn players. Immediately, the band coalesced. Out of this arose the first party-ready song of the evening, “You Yes You” (from second album “Whokill”, which comprised most of the evening’s setlist).
The crowd had no choice but to groove. More than a dance party, this was brainy disco. A dissertation on how to raise the roof.
By the third track, “Powah” Garbus owned the venue. As close as she gets to a ballad, this number was a slow-burner meant for lighter-raising … if only the Orange Peel allowed it.
Everyone was ill- prepared for the onslaught of “Gangsta” segued by “Bizness.” “Gangsta” is the closest thing to a hit. Full of fuzzed guitars meshed with hip-hop, it also demonstrates flair for cerebral lyricism. Referencing musical alienation from one generation to the next, Merrill begged the crowd to ponder, “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a rasta / Singing from his heart, but he’ll never be a rockstar.”
As “Gangsta” faded, the Afro-Beat soul—a strong influence on Garbus, who taught singing in Kenya—took over. “Bizness” emerged as a whirling interplay of percussion, horns, and vocals that evolved out of the African-themed breakdown. Fela Kuti cracked a smile somewhere.
The end of the evening was punctuated by the crowd favorite, “My Country”, sealing audience exposure to every possible element on the live show checklist. Ballads, dance-tracks, art-noise experimentation, and yes, even good old-fashioned jams filled the set.
“I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman,” Garbus rapped on “Killa.” “I’m a don’t take shit from kind of woman, so buckle up cause we gonna move fast”.
Yes, indeed, Ms. Garbus. You certainly are a new breed, and if the Orange Peel is any indication, your future should be white-knuckle fun.