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When I met with Virginia native and San Francisco resident Thao Nguyen at The Sinclair I experienced the more soft-spoken and humorous side of the musician. Upon first meeting her she joked about her band The Get Down Stay Down’s decision to watch the “very challenging” Rush Hour in their dressing room. We spoke about her new album We The Common in detail and she explained how the parts came together for what she says is slightly more personal album. Thao brought a similar playfulness to the stage, but it was accompanied by an intensity that was impressive even for an indie-pop band. This version of Thao attacked her guitar with vigor and commanded a sold-out crowd filled with mostly young people. Combined as a band, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down played through a sixteen song set with ferocity and confidence. And yet, guitarist and singer Thao still managed to maintain the likeable and punky personality that has unified all of her releases.
Opening for the band was the indie rockabilly group Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside. Their home base of Portland shouldn’t be a surprise based on front-woman Sally Ford’s powerful performance, which was likely inspired by Pacific Northwest bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile. The band is a four-piece which sported eight Converse sneakers on stage for a forty-five minute set of fifties-style rock and surf guitars. By the end of the set Sally Ford & The Sound Outside had sufficiently warmed up the crowd, likely gaining some new fans in the process.
Continuing the trend of bands led by charismatic women, Thao took the stage soon afterwards along with her 5 piece band The Get Down Stay Down. The title track from the 2009 album Know Better Learn Faster served as the opening song for the band and allowed them to remind the crowd of their long existing ability to pack songs with folky hooks. After just one older song the band started going through new tracks, each one sounding rhythmic and raw, an effect Thao tells me she was going for with this record.
The new album focuses thematically on ideas of community outreach and good citizenship, which is reflected in the lyrics as well as Thao’s own personal life as of late. Recently Thao has been working with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and at the show there was an Oxfam booth sharing space with the merch table. “The songs on this album are a lot more outward looking,” says Thao while considering the scope of this new music. It would be logical to expect a subdued music style given the subject matter of the new songs but that’s not the case for We The People and it certainly wasn’t the case for last night’s show.
Over the course of the set Thao picked up a variety of stringed instruments, the most notable being a guitar mounted on a keyboard stand. Thao displayed a powerful control over the mounted guitar, doubling down on it like a soloing pianist. She worked the crowd with a similar intensity, having the audience sing for “Holy Roller”. At one point in the show when the audience was expecting a riff Thao paused, laughing as the crowd was visibly thrown off. The crowd embraced the set whole-heartedly, with one especially excited fan throwing her bra onstage as tribute.
The last song of the normal set was “We The Common (For Valerie Bolden),” a song that Thao wrote for woman serving a life-sentence in a California jail. Thao told me that she struck out on her own for this album more than she has in the past, and it showed in this song. The emotional song would have been a fine ending for the show, but with Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s level of energy being so high an encore seemed inevitable. Thao led the band in the playful song “Body” and made no hesitation before starting a powerful version of the song “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. In an appropriately celebratory fashion Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside came back on stage to help sing, and the crowd joined in eagerly. Thao picked an exceptionally high note to end the concert on and left me wondering whether I had just been to a concert or a party.