Vienna Teng loves scaring herself. Whether it’s a series of StageIt shows to test out rough versions of new songs, stepping away from the comfort of her piano to embrace the foreignness of a guitar, or beginning her set with whichever song her brain triggers first, intimidation clearly attracts Teng. During the second of two sold-out shows at San Francisco’s The Independent, the California native hopped from keyboards to guitars and even to some drinking cups, keeping the audience alert and her sound unpredictable. The franticness and varied performance paralleled that of her newest album Aims, her boldest record to date.
The first song that flowed from her subconscious was “Augustine” from 2009’s Inland Territory. Stripped of it’s dynamic production, Teng showcased the battle cry of the piano accompanied by passionate vocals. Steadily, she added more musicians and instruments to the fray. Next up was “Blue Caravan,” the haunting, midnight lullaby from her third album Dreaming Through The Noise. Joined by multi-instrumentalist Jordan Hamlin, Teng once again scaled the song down to raw form, allowing Hamlin’s guitar to slowly wash over the audience, bathed in blue light. Continuing the slow build, Teng brought out long-time collaborator and musician Alex Wong to provide percussion on “Level Up,” the lead song from the new record. Although the energy of the show did indeed level up, Wong sped the tempo of the song too fast, leaving Teng and Hamlin to play catch up.
Fortunately, with the final musician introduction of Eric Long, the band caught the rhythm again; on “Landsailor,” the parts created a beautiful whole. Perfect harmonies from Teng and Long, siren calls from Hamlin’s guitar, and Wong’s crescendoing beats created an enormous sound. The stage setup allowed Teng and co. to recapture the layered energy of Aims through a series of looping gadgets and pedals. The collaborative nature of the show saw other successful results in the form of a French horn solo from Hamlin on the autumnal “Antebellum,” and later with Teng, Hamlin, and Wong using cups from the Dollar Tree to recreate the frenzied percussion of “Copenhagen (Let Me Go).” On the latter, the musicians were perfectly in sync up until the final moment of stacking the cups, leaving one cup astray.
Though her band elevated the textural components of the songs and provided comedic banter in between, the true highs of the show featured Teng on her own. Midway through her set, Teng opened her toy box for the audience; fiddling with the affectionately named “Imogen Heap button,” (which also worked as a “Barry White button” and a “Boys II Men button) on her keyboard, Teng eventually glided into the robotic “Hymn of Acxiom.” The eerie harmonics reverberated throughout the room as Vienna adopted the persona of an android, delivering a metallic plea to the transfixed humans. As her encore, the now Detroit-based artist channeled Detroit’s golden boy Eminem, mixing his massive hit “Lose Yourself” with the morning soul of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” While it looks strange on paper, Teng spat out the lyrics the former in between belting the familiar chorus of the latter with an unseen ease. Both of these performances underscored Teng’s growth as a live performer since she started touring in the early 2000s.
Aims takes an introvert and thrusts her into extroverted waters. In a live setting, a few of the songs from the new record lacked the epic trappings they wore in the studio. Still, this tour shows Teng at her most musically adventurous. To send us off, Teng strapped on that unfamiliar guitar for a stripped version of Aims closer “Goodnight New York.” The campfire ode to America’s muse, simple in its message and melody, spotlighted a singer who likes to be scared as completely fearless.
Close to Home
Hymn Of Acxiom
Oh Mama No
Are You Listening?
In The 99
Copenhagen (Let Me Go)
Goodnight New York
Lose Yourself / Ain’t No Sunshine