Nothing about tUnE-yArDs at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (try saying that when you’re hungover) isn’t intensely memorable. Sussex Campus looks like a scene from a movie, covered late March snow. The venue (a beautiful mouthful) smells new, all cut wood and optimism. After support from Brazilian psychedelic rock band Boogarins (epic, awesome, but I did overhear “might try the patience of anyone just waiting to see Merrill”) we are cast into total darkness.
I’m desperately trying to use this opportunity to discreetly get my thermal top off and my dress back on when haunting, ghost-like vocals start to rebound across me. Quickly building up, something about Merrill’s opening vocals is perfect for a Sunday night gig: a one woman woke-songs-of-praise-style layering, looped to become a breathtaking orchestra of sound with impossible speed. Compared to previous Brighton appearances, tUnE-yArDs are pared back tonight – but nonetheless uproarious.
Quickly moving the audience to euphoria with favourite songs played to perfection, Merrill is on the verge of crowd worship, when mid-Powa I start to feel uncomfortable. Has a toddler got at the lighting? It’s all over the place, in my eyes, lighting up the sweaty winter faces next to me. I can’t see Merrill anymore and I thank f*ck I’m not epileptic. As Powa blends into Colonizer though, it becomes clear this is intentional – it’s full on Brechtian lighting. “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men…I smell the blood in my voice” – in full flood lighting for a truly alienating amount of time, we can’t not get it – I feel a coloniser’s shame. This gig is getting SERIOUS. There’s a moment when we’ve switched from euphoria to awkwardness that reminds me for a second of Stewart Lee chewing an imaginary poppadom on stage – is it possible we’ve lost the moment?
Of course, if anyone can bring you back from the edge it is Merrill, and she seems all-powerful now: I am in the palm of her hand. She 100% does release us back into the wild, but slowly. The whole feeling of this gig is so much more “woke” and earnest than the playful bounces I’ve seen her create before. By Gangsta, we are fully back to going crazy in the semi-darkness. Finishing on an encore of Bizness (“don’t take my life away don’t take my life away”) straight into Free (“Free!/don’t tell me I’m free”) is just inspired. On consideration the whole set list seems to have been designed to perfection – Colonizer could have gone nowhere except right there in the middle. This is tUnE-yArDs at their all time best, taking us on a journey with a gig that is completely – well, lit.