Playing live in an abandoned mortuary sounds intimate enough, yet when a woman takes the stage all on her own to a sold-out crowd of fans eagerly hanging onto every note, chills can start to creep.
But for singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen (of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down), a hometown show is everything but. Longtime fans of Thao gave her nothing but love as she played a solo show apart from the band she is often seen bumming around with, as she welcomed The Chapel in San Francisco with open arms last Wednesday, March 15th.
Calling her show a “career retrospective,” she mentioned she had commissioned her show herself and posed the question, “Why not play songs by myself written about myself?”
Having made San Francisco her home for the past eleven years, fans hollered in support saying, “San Francisco is so much better because of you, Thao,” to which she’d blush in response.
The stage was equipped with her army of instruments: an electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap steel guitar and numerous effects pedals. She picked up her electric guitar, plugged the aux cable in and jammed out to the overdrive of her guitar and sang out, “What if I am just a body in your bed,” the opening lyrics to her song “Body” from 2009’s Know Better Learn Faster.
Thao bobbed her head, swayed back-and-forth to every pluck of her guitar and marched her feet. Her knack for rhythm is seamless, as her voice — at times full and deep and other times a whispering scream — flowed with every move on her guitar. Watching her go from song to song and switching between multiple guitars was both exciting and interesting to watch, as she managed to make one instrument sound so full against the beat of her voice.
“Hand Of God” off her 2016 release A Man Alive came next and showcased some of the best of Thao’s ability to cross boundaries — it blended folk with bluesy licks and breathy vocals you can dance to.
She gave love to all of her albums released throughout the years, such as “Fear And Convenience” from 2008’s We Brave Bee Stings and All, an intricately-plucked folk song and “Squareneck,” a loudly overdriven rusty song played on the electric lap steel guitar from 2011’s collaborative project Thao & Mirah.
In an especially inspiring moment, Thao created bass notes and spiraling guitar licks on a loop pedal to introduce the song “Meticulous Bird” off her latest album A Man Alive. She said:
“I wrote this song for survivors of sexual violence; for all those who resist the abuse of power. Now is our time. Now is the only time. Please take care of one another, please stand on the side of justice and humanity. For moral decency. Let us all be meticuloous birds. Thank you so much for being with me today.”
The song, to which Thao sang with conviction and a glare in her eyes as she screamed and shouted, “Why deny?” to the hard-plucked overdrive of her guitar allowed herself to lose herself. Her hair whipped all over the place; lyrics jumped out of her chest; body marched and stomped throughout the song.
If there’s anything I got from Thao’s performance, it was that the woman can own the stage with no fear or slight hiccup. She went through her set seamlessly with ease and confidence, at one point mentioning, “I love how intimate these shows can be as I don’t have to talk to fill up the room.”
For one woman filling up the room with just a single voice and instrument, Thao impressed. The intricacies of her guitar plucking and highly percussive sense of rhythm created something fuller than most artists I’ve seen on their own today.
As she closed with “We The Common (For Valerie Bolden),” a banjo song full of bouncy folk-pop goodness and plenty of sing-alongs and hand-claps, it was clear to see that Thao was in her element — she made the crowd feel good with her musical presence, welcoming attitude and unique style of musicianship. No wonder she is the pride and joy of the Bay.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's latest studio album A Man Alive (2016) is available to purchase on Amazon. Be sure to also check out their past records below.
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