Thao with the Get Down Stay Down: Live last night


Live Last Night

By Patrick Foster

"I am a smoky plume," Thao Nguyen sang during her sold-out show at the Black Cat on Friday night, an apt descriptor for not only her voice, but the shimmery ambiance of her best recordings.

The Falls Church native -- backed by her band, the Get Down Stay Down -- opted for jumpy and coiled over smoky and seductive during her entertaining hour-long set, but her disarming energy made up for any nuances she disregarded.

(Breaking up is easy to do, at least when Thao sings about it, after the jump.)

Ostensibly touring to promote her fine new album, "Know Better Learn Faster," the show felt more like a celebratory homecoming (the group is now based in San Francisco), light on new material and suffused with easy informality. The few new songs she did perform -- "Body," "Fixed It!" and "When We Swam," chiefly -- indicated a burgeoning maturity: a deeper integration of Thao's twin inspirations, the sizzle and snap of Motown and the contemplative shuffle of folk rock.

The central driver behind it all, however, is Thao's vocals and last night she oscillated between a husky purr and a commanding shout. Even the winsome bounce of favorites like "Geography" and "Swimming Pools" felt punky when she snarled out key couplets.

Thao balances the contradictions of recording for a fiercely independent label (Portland's Kill Rock Stars) while making catchy, accessible music (one of her songs appeared in a TV commercial last year) featuring lyrics about souring relationships. To that point, when she called two friends on stage last night under the ruse of "fan appreciation night," it actually turned out to be a marriage proposal. She then dedicated a song to the couple while apologizing for all her songs being about breaking up.

That Thao can balance those dichotomies and still make wonderful music is a clear testament to her unique talent. And yeah, commercial potential.

By David Malitz |  November 9, 2009; 10:13 AM ET Live Last Night , Local News
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