Touring behind their fourth studio album, A Man Alive, released on March 4th of this year and produced by Merrill Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs), Thao and the Get Down Stay Down take on the arduous task of performing this rhythmic and robust record with the same power and intensity the listener gets from the recording. Describing the album as more vulnerable and straightforward than previous records, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down have achieved a new level of candid self-expression with A Man Alive, but can it translate into a great live experience?
Thao Nguyen and crew enter the stage around 9:50 to tracks of a hip-hop beat playing. With a quick “Hello Phoenix!” they launch into the first song. Throughout the evening, Thao emphasizes the lyrics with emphatic pointing as she sings, thereby drilling her point into the audience.
In contrast with the music performance, the in-between banter is natural and even soothing. Thao relates a funny story from the previous night of a guy starting a mosh pit, causing her to pause mid-song to bounce him. “No one would ever mosh to us!” As the song begins, the guitar player even adds when the out-of-place moshing took place, causing Thao to laugh again. As diverse as the setlist is, none of the songs ever warrant moshing.
Thao does all the solos on whatever stringed instrument happens to be laying around. Throughout the course of the evening, she donned a few guitars, a banjo and a mandolin. The broad range of styles present in the singe show, some revival-style songs, some afrobeat-style funky grooves, and even a Missy Elliott cover, would normally cause a disjointed experience, but the sheer earnestness of the music keeps the show coherent. The show could be viewed as a public exorcism of her own demons, as if she’s speaking to someone she wants to love, but she has a long list of grievances to air beforehand. She’s been burned, and as a result, she’s alternately vulnerable and ferocious as she meticulously incriminates the one who jilted her.
Upon listening to the albums, especially the latest one, it’s easy to believe that s much studio magic went into this, which no live show could meaningfully reproduce. Fortunately, this is not the case at all. Thanks to a multi-instrumental abilities of the Get Down Stay Down, a bass player that often plays the Korg for bassline duties, and a keyboardist who’s adept at background vocal duties (incidentally, she shouted a well-timed “Feel the Bern!” during their rendition of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”), Thao and the Get Down Stay Down more than meet the challenge of reproducing the quirks and intricacies of the album with both precision and force. Nguyen alone produces an astonishing amount of sound, while alternating between states of sharp self-containment and musical rapture.