Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is a San Francisco−based band fronted by singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen, but the DC area can claim her as a native daughter. She grew up in the city of Falls Church in Northern Virginia, and attended the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, a magnet school for Fairfax county’s best scholars.
There was a contingent of fellow TJ alumni, along with plenty of other local friends and family at Nguyen’s first headlining show at the 9:30 Club earlier this month (Friday, April 15) and she acknowledged the special nature of the occasion with a short speech about four songs into the night, conveying just how much it meant to her to take the stage at a revered venue she had attended so many times as a teenager.
From the songs on Nguyen’s latest album, A Man Alive, it seems clear that those years were emotionally charged for the budding songwriter. Her most personal recordings to date, the songs are addressed to, or in the voice of, an absentee father who drifted in and out of her family’s life, leaving a range of conflicted sentiments.
But this was not a night to dwell in despair; far from it. One of Nguyen’s strengths as a songwriter and, on this night, a performer, is to channel intense feelings into cathartic music. Playing a fierce guitar and whipping her long, dark hair as she crouched and spun into her beat-heavy, angular rock, Nguyen and her fine band – three guys (bass, guitar and drums) and one gal (keyboards) – kept the spirits high and the energy unrelenting as they moved through 20 songs, half pulled from the new album.
There were sporadic moves into more varied territory, like the poignant ballad “Millionaire,” (its killer chorus: chorus “Oh Daddy I broke in a million pieces/That makes you a millionaire”) performed by just the singer and one guitarist; a two-song encore that opened with a authentically hip-hopping cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” the occasional switch for Nguyen to banjo or mandolin. But for the most part, this was a night of combustible rock with biting solos and impassioned vocals, hand-clapping and sing-along choruses, turning painful songs like set closer “Meticulous Bird,” written for survivors, specifically of sexual assault, into declarations of triumphant recovery.
It was, in short, a wonderful homecoming.
Adding to the night’s good feeling was the discovery of what to many in the crowd was a new favorite band, albeit one with a long track record. Saintseneca began in 2007 as a bluegrass group in Appalachian Ohio and has grown to a multi-instrumental rock/folk collective that isn’t afraid to play with a minimal punk edge and then switch gears to a dense, epic rock sound.
Led by front man Zac Little, the band’s three studio albums (2011’s Last, 2014’s Dark Arc and last year’s Such Things) recall the eclectic indie romanticism of the Decemberists, but the band’s live sound this night hewed closer to a classic Americana-tinged rock, catchy and highly conductive to making new friends. In addition, a cover of “Bittersweet Symphony” and the appearance of a friend/guest on the last song, dressed in a bizarre shaggy costume, indicated that Saintseneca likes to play with your expectations.
Little Scream didn’t have the same chance to impress in its opening slot, as the group – actually a nom de band for Laurel Sprengelmeyer – was beset by sound issues that forced them to restart their first song and kept the lyrics of the subsequent tracks hard to decipher. A shame, as Sprengelmeyer has made a strong impression on the likes of Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, the elusive Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sufjan Stevens and Sharon Van Etten, all of whom contributed to her due-in-May new album, Cult Following. Sprengelmeyer retained her composure, smiled and played a short set split between her debut, The Golden Record and the upcoming work, but the lush and sometimes unsettling sonic touches of her studio work were lost this night. Hope she gets a chance to have a do-over soon.
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