Photos by: Nicole Browner
While the audience, and even the performers, might have expected Saturday night’s collaboration between Mirah and Thao Nguyen to come across as a spirited little experiment, it was quite plain after the first couple songs that this venture was going to be a distinct highlight of the festival, if not a prelude to a storied pairing to come. Mirah, having recently moved to SF from the heralded indie rock village of Olympia, seems to have arrived just in time to intersect with her soul-crossed musical sister who is beginning to sell out shows left and right all over town.
In addition to taking vocal leads on each other’s songs, the two belted out harmonies with their signature mojo, making it hard for the seated crowd to remain still within the stoic, modernist confines of the classic hall. Neither of them has, or ever will be content to simply rely on their gorgeous pipes to sing demure folk tunes or tread comfortable singer-songwriter / adult-contempo territory. Their lyrics are not only crafty, but the “real life shit” angle of their songwriting continues to resonate with fans.
As the set wore on, we got to see Thao work her multi-talented chops on the drums, banjo and even some slide guitar. The duo was eventually joined by a smooth brush operator on drums, and talented local up and comers Mike Deni (of Geographer) and Kasey Johansing on various percussion and backing vox. And even with all of the musical chairing on stage, spontaneity and the slightly awkward energy of a few under-rehearsed numbers made the performance stand out from the strategic 40 min. set drill so many festival acts are compelled to put on.
However, the preceding act Horse Feathers exemplified utter refinement in their seemingly brief though occasionally breathtaking set. Led by singer Justin Ringle, the Portland band features a string trio but also incorporates understated percussion, banjo, musical saw and mandolin. At times calling to mind early Iron & Wine and Songs: Ohia, the band really shone when cellist Catherine Odell harmonized with Ringle. By the end of their set, it was obvious by the crowd’s lament — and much to the band’s compliment — they could have easily held their weight as a headliner on another bill.
Openers Dave Smallen and Carletta Sue Ray were unfortunately outmatched by the night’s later performers, but they were graced by an attentive and mostly appreciative crowd. Smallen’s no frills, straight down-the-hatch songsmithing was refreshing at times, if only a bit familiar. Carletta Sue Ray, touted as “the slightly unhinged gender-bending alter ego of Randy Walker, a psychotic Loretta Lynn acolyte…” was quite a spectacle in kicking the evening off at the intersection of Patsy Cline and Rocky Horror Picture Show. But I may have been a little underdrunk (and presumbably the smile-free band may have been too) to decipher the line between the schtickin’ and the pickin’.
Mirah with Thao and friends:
Carletta Sue Kay