Thao Nguyen at The Chapel in San Francisco, by Ian Young

Thao Nguyen (photo: Ian Young)

Words by Mark Spero

At The Chapel on Wednesday March 15, Thao Nguyen, of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, told the crowd she had embarked on a solo tour, a “career retrospective” that “nobody had asked for,” but she wanted to play some songs “by [herself], about [herself].”  This was met with raucous applause from the sold out crowd.  Thao has called San Francisco home for the past eleven years, and leaving her band behind for this show made for an intimate yet truly rock and roll experience for the hometown crowd.

The night began with a beautiful opening set up by Hazel English.  The Australian singer-songwriter, now an Oakland resident, drew a small crowd of devout fans to the front of the stage, whose enthusiastic applause overwhelmed the loud group waiting for Thao to perform.  English, like Nguyen, was without her full band, but with only her acoustic guitar joined by a heavily effected, electric second guitarist, English created a full and interesting sound.  Her music is similar to Day Wave and Jay Som.  Her stage presence was very relaxed, talking with the crowd and thanking them for the quiet, affectionate show.

Thao Nguyen took the stage a little after ten and immediately picked up her electric guitar to jump into an overdriven, blues-inflected song.  The stage was covered in instruments, including multiple acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, an electric lap steel guitar, and a mandolin.  For those who have never seen Thao live, she is a talented guitarist, a fact fully realized when she is alone on stage.  Her intricate finger picking filled the room, and her overdriven tone did not detract from the dissonant yet beautiful melodies.  Throughout the set, she danced around the stage, moved her head and body wildly, but never to the point that it detracted from the music itself.  Her performance seemed honestly ecstatic, and reminded me of videos of 1970s rock shows, hair flailing and bodies gyrating.  Thao’s voice filled the room, with qualities reminiscent of Fiona Apple and Sinead O’Conner.  Between songs, she joked with the crowd, talking about her life in San Francisco and her solo tour.  She joked that this was a career retrospective, but she was happy to get to perform her music solo.  Overall, she said she was glad to be home, if only for a night.

When artists who traditionally play with bands go solo, their sound often suffers, becoming too small to really fill a venue, and their performances go the same way, lacking the confidence gained from being surrounded by other musicians.  This is in no way true of Thao.  Her solo performance showed her confidence, musical virtuosity, and enthusiasm for performance.  The crowd got to hear songs from her many albums and sang along to most songs.  If this is a test run for more solo work, it is going very well.

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