Live Review, 2/23/12: Thao Nguyen Brings Out the Badass at Bottom of the Hill

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John Vanderslice at Bottom of the Hill last night

Thao Nguyen
John Vanderslice
Bird by Snow
Garrett Pierce
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2012
Bottom of the Hill

Better than: Every live performance Thao has given to date.

If anything is left standing at Bottom of the Hill after last night's Noise Pop festival show, it is certainly by the good graces of powerhouse indie songstress Thao Nguyen. With a new band and edgier demeanor, Nguyen decimated last night's lineup with a magnificent power.

The show was destined to make waves when it sold out a week prior to performance, in no small way influenced by the ingénue's work outside of her band. Nguyen is known for lobbying government officials on behalf of musicians, and works to benefit domestic violence shelters and sexual abuse counseling services.

She delved into film composition last year, providing the score for American Teacher, a documentary on our educational system. Nguyen has also written scores for WNYC's Radiolab podcast, and is set to perform in its latest round of touring shows.

This past December, she brushed elbows with the Portlandia crew (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), performing a cover of Salt-N-Pepa's Push It at Mezzanine.

Still, celebrity ascent aside, last night promised the same subdued, guitar-heavy sound we have come to recognize as Thao Nguyen's. We all expected the same lyrical simplicity and child-like vulnerability that has often earned her comparisons to Cat Power. Well, my friends, Cat Power is dead; and in her place is a hissing, yowling, hellfire singer.

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Thao Nguyen
​Last night, clad in a denim jumper, thwacking her jet-black hair about smoldering eyes, Ngyuen taunted, "Will you be off, be on, and be out of my sight?" Three songs later, she broke into a cover of Ludacris' What's your Fantasy.

There have been signs of this transformation. Know Better, Learn Faster, released in 2009, was a propulsive, raw, and angst-frayed post-break-up production. Its songs were hopeless tomes cheaply marinated in a sauce of pop music. Live performances took on an increasingly strained feel -- what hindsight calls artistic growth. Nearly three years later, and now deeply embedded in work on a new album, we find that Thao has emerged a fighter.

The new tracks performed last night thrashed together Nguyen's countrified sound with elements of blues rock, gospel, and R&B. New instrumentation and a smattering of fresh bandmates gave way to flourishes of Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown. "Baby, I was on your conscience, you were only on my mind," Nguyen exploded; later, she took a swig of Jameson and thanked the crowd for indulging her.

The audience couldn't have been happier united under Nguyen's thumb. It had been restless all evening without a leader at its helm. The lo-fi offerings of opening performers Bird by Snow and Garrett Pierce hadn't grabbed its full attention (which both artists took in great professional stride).

Co-headliner John Vanderslice proved a worthy match. Dressed in a "Danielle Vanderslice 2004" T-shirt, the troubadour presented an intimate, ruminative, and experimental sampling of his vast repertoire. Vanderslice was as earnest and approachable as ever, but this did little to assuage the audience -- which, on the whole, was too fascinated by its own self-importance to be bothered to show the artist the respect he deserved.

Last night's the spotlight truly, and justifiably, belonged to Thao. The new Nguyen was a temptress of self-assurance -- a testament to resilience and the transformative powers of the will. It is no small feat suffering heartbreak and finding the means to stay positive, grow, and give to others. If last night proved anything, it's that we're all capable of making such waves. But it clearly belonged to one badass -- and her name is Thao.

Critic's Notebook

Thao's setlist:
Body
When We Swam
Swimming Pools
The Day Long
So Neck
Beat (Health, Life and Fire)
Move
Know Better Learn Faster
Holy Roller
Bag of Hammers
The Give
Age of Ice
--
If You Were Mine (R. Charles)

Favorite quote:
"Fuck, I missed the end. I was so close," said John Vanderslice after performing "Plymouth Rock." "I won't be able to sleep tonight if I don't complete this." (He then went on to repeat the final measures of the song perfectly.)

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Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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