San Francisco’s Thao & The Get Down Stay Down celebrated Halloween at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, helping to warm the place up for tour mates The Head and the Heart. It’s been a busy year for the band thanks to the 2013 release of third album We The Common, festival appearances, and an opening date for The National. The hectic schedule will continue into December, taking Thao Nguyen and company across Europe in support of The Lumineers. But first: the completion of a North American jaunt with their other folk friends.
Thao seems like the type of musician ready to try anything and approach it all with intelligence. An early start on guitar and an already fairly lengthy discography has cemented her status on the folk scene, and it’s apparent she’s making the right friends – including a collaboration with Joanna Newsom on the aforementioned We The Common. It’s an album whose title track is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a woman Nguyen met during a visit to a state prison. The album is ripe with her experience advocating for those incarcerated in California, showing a social consciousness and an awareness of the world around her.
Nguyen – who wore an orange jumper with holiday appropriate jack-o-lantern markings on the back – was joined on stage by her three band mates, clad in more modest devil’s horns. It was a bit of a rocky start thanks to Nguyen’s guitar being too loud in the mix, but it was a quick fix and they thankfully settled down.
Nguyen’s clearly comfortable on stage and a talented musician as well; think a more instrumentally adventurous Feist. She proved this throughout her set, switching between guitar, banjo, mandolin, and slide guitar. The latter was particularly impressive, Thao busting it out for “Squareneck” – a number that also saw her hop on drums for its end. We The Common closer “Age of Ice” was another set highlight, Thao and her band trading between moments of simplicity and well-executed instrumental cacophony.
The project’s also all a bit quirky, like a band you’d expect to pop up on Portlandia. While that might just be her keyboardist’s uncanny resemblance to actress Carrie Brownstein coming through, it’s safe to say Nguyen’s got a sense of humour. Case in point, a question posed to the audience near the end of the set: “Before we start this song, I’d just like to ask if Ludacris is popular in Canada.” It was an odd bit of banter that soon became clear when Nguyen dropped in some of the rapper’s “What’s Your Fantasy” lyrics to end the number. And oddly amidst the folk rock, it didn’t even seem that out of sorts. Maybe Luda has a second musical genre he needs to explore.
To mark the Halloween occasion, they also pulled out a special cover for set’s end. While Thao’s attempts to page the “monsters of folk” was fairly unsuccessful (she remarked: “We had a plan, I don’t think it’s working”,) a spirited cover of the “Monster Mash” was still pretty fun to watch – just like the rest of the band’s set.