Merrill Garbus stood in front of a white screen, spotlights pointed toward her from every direction. It looked like the start of a photo shoot, with a wide-eyed Garbus in all black apart from a chunky, white necklace reminiscent of a rope wrapped around her neck.
On January’s I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, the first Tune-Yards release in almost four years, Garbus dives deep into her own white privilege and cultural appropriation as an artist inspired by African music. At last night’s concert at the Fox Theater — the headlining event of this year’s Noise Pop festival — the stage set-up seemed to reflect this self-examination, self-consciousness, and guilt.
But she didn’t dwell on it — nor directly address these themes at all, actually. Joined by bassist and ongoing collaborator Nate Brenner and jazz drummer Hamir Atwal, Garbus did her usual looping, drum pad clattering, ukulele strumming thing to dazzling effect. New, more electronic-imbued songs such as “Heart Attack” and “Look at Your Hands” sounded particularly wide and grand. Garbus’ voice was the starring instrument, though, with every impossible-sounding, piercing wail and primal scream yielding more and more devoted applause.
While her looped, owl-like hoots at the start of 2011 hit “Bizness” sounded true-to-form, she took other songs like 2014’s “Water Fountain” to new, experimental heights. “Colonizer,” off I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, turned so heavy on the synth and distortion that it felt like the song might break at any moment — an artistic choice with plenty to read into given the song’s lyrics. I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men / I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me / I smell the blood in my voice, Garbus sang.
In interviews, Garbus has been blatant about her own fears and vulnerability with I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. At the Fox, though, she seemed at total ease.
“There is no place like home. Holy moly,” she said. “There’s a way people talk about Oakland. If only they knew the power, the determination, the passion, the history. We’re so lucky to live here.”
Shortly before the end of her set, she paused, overwhelmed with emotion.
“I won’t cry,” she said. “But I feel like crying because we have such a family here in Oakland.”