Thao takes down the Swedish American with her bare heart


Tuesday night, as part of the Noise Pop festival at the Swedish American Music Hall, I had the pleasure of seeing the excellent Thao Nguyen (of The Get Down Stay Down). Maybe you all know this already, maybe I’m late to this game, but yeah, wow. She lived up to every word of hype, and there is loads of hype.

From the moment she took the stage, Thao made two things clear: 1) She was there. 100% full-bodied THERE; and 2) she was really happy WE were there. In her own words:

“I love playing shows in the city I live in, cause we can talk like friends.”

Joined by drummer James Slota*, Thao writhed and shook with a hollow-bodied electric guitar nearly twice the size of her torso. She plucked – loose but not sloppy – intricate and sometimes fiery lead lines and punctuated them with harmonics and brusque strums. At other times she played the mandolin or the banjo (in such a way as to call to mind the qinqin). Topped with lyrics yelled, or sung and always delivered with utter earnestness and heart.

While Thao’s voice might not appeal to all, being more powerful than polished, it was impossible not to be swept into her fervor. One line in particular swept me in, “If the breeze leaves with the one you love / You go out & catch them.” She vowed to hit on every person in the crowd, and kept good on that promise with her inherently flirtatious stage presence. She could bring down the house with a foot stomp.

Word is that the band has just completed recording another album, which would be their first release since 2013’s We The Common. Clearly, there are good things to come.

A word of appreciation for the 3 opening acts: Debbie Neigher, Annie Girl & The Flight, and The Mynabirds. Neigher, who stepped in last minute to cover for Everyone is Dirty after a band member suffered liver failure (gasp!), had a gorgeous pure-toned voice that was sometimes mesmerizing, and a classic and composed piano style. Annie Girl took us all deep into inner space with psychedelic folk songs that pit existential sadness against innocence with her little-girl voice.

The Omaha-based Mynabirds – played by lead singer Laura Burhenn – blew me away. Literally, (the mic was a little too hot at times), and figuratively with a powerful, nuanced and polished sound. I’d read that she was able to do the girl-with-a-piano-singing-about-the-heart thing without shmaltz and didn’t quite believe it. But there it was. Of the 4 acts of the night, this was the one that most surprised me, and the one who carried the most composure. Her voice evoked at different moments Loreena McKennitt, Jenny Lewis, Emmy Lou Harris and Cat Power. Of the loop station and vocal harmony processor she used to turn the solo performance into rich arrangements, she joked, “the cost of having a band is going up, so I’ve got robots as back-up singers.” The robots (via vocal loops) were also her drummer and bass player. An impressive show that’s got me looking forward to a deeper delve into this band’s music.

As a final note, there was an interesting (and exciting) announcement in the Noise Pop program that stated the festival will be curating 2015 (and beyond?) at the Swedish American.  It’s great to see energy to revitalize this incredible listening room.

Noise Pop continues all weekend. Check out their remaining schedule here.

Editors Note: This article was updated to reflect the correct name of Thao’s drummer. 

Photos by Mark Mosher.