San Francisco Bay Area-based musician, Thao Nguyen, had taken a “four-year break” from music to dedicate her time to charity before her latest album, We the Common, came out in early 2013 on Ribbon records. With the record release being so fresh and Thao having been out of the spotlight for so long, it was a pleasant surprise to see a packed Lincoln Hall on Friday night. Sallie Ford, a rambunctious young lady from Portland opened for Thao with screaming loyal fans begging her to stay on stage; she pulled off a flawless set, adorned in lace tights and a naval-themed dress, one could have easily mistaken her for an extra walking off the set of “My So-Called Life.”
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (The Get Down Stay Down consists of a Bassist, Drummer and Keyboardist) opened with “Know Better, Learn Faster,” which was the featured track from the collaboratives first album four years ago. Immediately the crowd got quiet, enamored by Thao who was wearing a form fitted fuchsia dress with cowboy boots. She used her seductive charm to hypnotize the audience while howling into the microphone. What stood out the most after watching the hour long set was the integration of American folk instrumentation into the bands’ overall pop theme.
“In the meantime, if you can find some hips… ask permission first.” Thao requested the audience join her sheepishly before sinking into “When We Swam”. Thrashing her head, chunks of choppy bangs swung across her face as she threw tantrums on stage, her eyes closed and jaw clenched, she fell into a trance when singing. Thao didn’t need permission to let go.; she wailed on banjo, a mandolin, and an old acoustic guitar; she used the same strumming pattern that she does on her guitar: a sort of haphazard freneticism that works for the purposes of filling in the gaps between her breaths.
Many bands today try to re-create Americana, but with limited music knowledge the music often falls flat when they try to reignite that old folk flame. Thao and her band avoid this altogether, creating a new sound with fervor and simplicity. The Americana quality in Thao’s band doesn’t kill the music like one might imagine. Old authentic instruments and slides kept the stage filled.
Thao shifted back and forth from lap guitar to Banjo… never once touching her electric guitar… whether this was meant to be a statement or not, it spoke volumes to what one might suspect their intentions were when loading up the van for tour. The songs had originality and weren’t trying to emulate anything old-time-y. Yet, all of the guitar and banjo lines were abbreviated and witled down that they were barely passable as complete songs; nevertheless they fit easily into the background of the keyboardist and Thao’s vocals– the two components that played the biggest roles in the set.
It was the keyboardist who did most of the work, without her playing every instrument in every variation you could imagine on the keys, the songs would have been choppy and dissonant. Even though her guitar picking created straight and empty melodies as the keyboard filled in the holes, Thao stole the spotlight with her exuberant persistence and undeniably beautiful vocals.
Thao has a tendency to play guitar remarkably similar to the way that she sings… not to mention how she moved her hips– that way which only she can swing them. Essentially, much of the music was there for the tambour, but when stripped of its ornate stage presence, there was not any standard style when the band was performing, which freed Thao of the having to play the old instruments in the traditional fashion. Thao ended the night by bringing Sallie Ford and her band back onstage to join her in singing a rendition of “Be My Baby,” before saying her thank you’s and leaving the stage to talk to fans after the show. Listen to a couple of the songs from Friday night below:
Know Better, Learn Faster
We Don’t Call
Kindness Be Conceived
The Day Long
Age of Ice
When We Swam
We the common
Be My Baby (with Sallie Ford)