Does Thao rhyme with wow? Emphatically yes, at least tonight. Thao Nguyen (pronounced Thow Nwen) and her band The Get Down Stay Down put on a rollicking show in front of a sold out crowd at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on a nippy Good Friday night. It was good indeed for the crowd, and Nguyen and her band seemed to feel the same way.
It may be that the Vietnamese American singer, songwriter and string player extraordinaire was voted least likely to trigger a blues revival when she graduated from high school, but that is precisely what she has done. With each release of her discography, and with the simmering and rocking show tonight, it becomes more clear that her music is anchored in the blues, and clearly she feels the genre has much more to say. She’s an adept electric blues player, but her music seems less steeped in Chicago blues than the rootsy blues of the Mississippi Delta; at least Thao uses that as the jumping off point. While it might be charming to see her perform solo acoustic, it’s clear that The Get Down Stay Down are an integral part of her sound, and they provided a muscular bottom and engaging accents throughout the show that really underscored the necessity of their existence. There was good rocking tonight indeed, with an energetic shuffle and sway.
Her husky alto could be at times delicate, feisty and at times extraordinarily powerful, so much that at times it threatened to knock some of the concertgoers’ shoes right off, and her bluesy string wailing and swirling raven tresses accomplished much the same feat, even when she wasn’t on the mic.
There were a few spots where Thao and her band simmered, but for the most part they rocked out with a great passion. She was equally skilled on the four-string banjo, mandolin, lap steel and hollow body guitar, which she spent most of the time playing, although at first glance one might easily be concerned it would cause her diminutive frame to tip over.
Touring behind their extraordinary new record on Ribbon Music, We The People, she and her band led the enthusiastic crowd through a baker’s dozen of her most recent and finest earlier songs.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down began the show with the title track from their 2009 release, Know Better Learn Faster, and right away it was clear that this was not some meek singer-songwriter ensemble. The next three numbers were all drawn from the new record, and were all were highlights, especially “Holy Roller,” on which she entreated the crowd to sing along, but “Squareneck” from Thao’s collaboration with Mirah was an unexpected delight.
Otherwise, the rest of the main set was drawn exclusively from We The Common, except for “When We Swam,” also from Know Better Learn Faster. There might have been one track in there, perhaps “Move,” in which the band simmered more than rocked, but there was nary a dud nor dullard in the selections tonight—she literally do no wrong, which included some actual (and credible) rapping, to the crowd’s delight. At least it was as credible as a Vietnamese-American lady who hails from Virginia could be.
The title track from the new record, dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a prison inmate serving life without parole who Nguyen met as part of a prison outreach program, was also a moving highlight of the evening.
For the encore, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down were joined onstage by openers Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside (also part of the now burgeoning indie rock blues revival) to perform a version of The Ronettes “Be My Baby.” Although the cover seemed somewhat anachronistic, as the lyrics went thematically counter to a lot of Thao’s feisty, feminist power-driven lyrics, perhaps that was precisely the point. It could have been an ironic statement, although it didn’t seem to be an empty ironic gesture at all, done with sincere love. Perhaps it was a way of ending the evening on a sweet note. It turns out they had recorded that cover for a radio session for Sirius XMU and Ronnie Spector herself was in the building at the time, so she stopped by to say hello. Nguyen got to meet her and talk to her, and as she put it on the band’s website: “We talked, we laughed, I almost passed out.”
Tonight at Lincoln Hall, it was all Thao talking, and the crowd laughed, clapped, rocked out and it was such a good show, they might have almost passed out too.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at Lincoln Hall on March 29 Setlist:
- “Know Better Learn Faster”
- “The Feeling Kind”
- “Holy Roller”
- “We Don’t Call”
- “Kindness Be Conceived”
- “Every Body”
- “The Day Long”
- “Age of Ice”
- “When We Swam”
- “We The Common (for Valerie Bolden)”
- “Be My Baby (Ronettes cover with Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside)”