By Jon Stone
As sharp as I sing. It still soothes you doesn't it? Like a lick of ice cream. - Thao Nguyen
Before the show Thursday night, I spent some quality time with Thao Nguyen’s catalog. I’d never seen her play before and I felt obliged to do my homework and gather some things to look forward to. I’m a fan, to be sure—though, I’ll admit to a small, preexisting hang-up related to Thao’s vocal style. My favorite female artists are those with huge voices—Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Annie Clark of St. Vincent come to mind (apparently, former Sufjan Stevens back-up singers need only apply). Thao’s voice—which echoes the vocal style of Isaac Brock—is not “huge” but essential, as I discovered Thursday night, to her unique 3-part charm.
The other two parts—Thao’s guitar playing and her incredible lyricism—were what initially gave me that something to look forward to in the days before her Canopy Club performance in Urbana. As is usually the case when I see a great band for the first time, my expectations were pale compared to the reality of the actual performance. I had a really great time.
Near the beginning of the performance, Thao mentioned how disconcerted she still was by a heckler at the Milwaukee show from the night before—the “funny” guy, she called him, who kept talking to her between songs (it wasn’t you, right Ryan?). But the thin, 40-odd member audience at Canopy Club seemed, on the other hand, disengaged at first—judging, even: arms folded, heads not yet bobbing.
Then she started to play—and so did the Get Down Stay Down! Oh, that Get Down Stay Down. Percussionist Willis Thompson managed to get the crowd going, encouraging hand-claps from the now tentatively swaying audience when ever the song called for it. Adam Thompson was unassuming and precise on bass, offering up, I noticed, sweet backing vocals and sporting a small disembodied horse head around his neck. Thompson & Thompson, backed up by Douglas Jenkins of the lovely Portland Cello Project, were essential. I'm glad it's not Thao without the Get Down Stay Down.
It remains to discuss the talents of Thao. Several times throughout the evening, I stood watching her fingers move on the fret board not believing the swirling jazz-folk sounds she seemed, somehow, to be making. Thao’s one of those guitar players that mixes technical playing seamlessly with a kind of laid-back causality that masks the difficulty of what is actually happening (see title track “Know Better Learn Faster” & “The Give”). I was amazed.
Thao’s lyrics are portraits--and sexy portraits at that. She moves deftly between veiled sexual references to what seem to be in-the-moment confessions scribbled on a bedside notepad (See “Body” & “Goodbye, Good Luck”). But unlike the sex-talk that satiates decades of dude-rock, Thao's lyrics and themes are classy and realistic (two concepts absent from the experiences of dude-rockers everywhere).
But Thao doesn't just write sexy lyrics or play a mean guitar. She sings. And whether it be the beat-box introduction of "Bag of Hammers" (which caught me completely by surprise) or the delicate-if-pitchy drone of "Geography", Thao's voice pulls this already-authentic band together and then pushes it all back out again, reeling, in dizzy, thrilling acrobatics.