Thao Nguyen Gets Up, Stays Up at Warehouse Live

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Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Seratones
Warehouse Live
April 22, 2016

Houston is one of the few cities in the world where someone could earnestly bang his or her head to a banjo. And Thao & the Get Down Stay Down is one of the few bands that would play a banjo song you could bang your head to. The scene at Friday's Warehouse Live show was that simple: a sincere dedication to music that rocks in any way, shape or form.

If James Brown had grown up in the '80s listening to a lot of Motörhead, he might have ended up in a band like opener Seratones, a Shreveport-based punk-rock outfit whose new album, Get Gone, debuts on May 6. This band knows how to rock, bringing together a classic, guitar-driven sound with just a splash of soul. The band delighted the crowd with the moody bass lines of "Kingdom Come" and the horn-raising guitar riffs of "Sun" (skillfully executed with "lyrical grit" by Connor Davis).

Seratones's music is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere choked with EDM pollution; the band was at its best when it combined the clashes of drums from Jesse Gabriel and the humming bass from Adam Davis with a slow lovers' ballad from vocalist AJ Haynes. Even in the sometimes difficult acoustics of Warehouse Live's studio stage, Seratones made its sonic mark.  Thao & The Get Down Stay Down hit the stage with "The Evening," a well-orchestrated argument slowly erupting between the guitar, the bass and then the entire band. Perhaps these moments of contention arise from the group's trying to make sense of itself without Merrill Garbus's creative hand, which rested heavily on A Man Alive, the band's latest release. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down amplified some of Garbus's production choices — a more pronounced train bell on "Departure," for example, or the use of a bow on a guitar on "Astonished Man" — but for the most part stripped off many of the album's blips, bells and buzzes. Deprived of these flourishes, we were able to see this music for what it really is: a well-organized cacophony of ambivalent sounds to best mirror the music's ambivalent subject matter.

This cacophony was driven largely by the power of rock and roll. Most songs were axe-raising and loud; "Nobody Dies," A Man Alive's big single, stitched together a roaring thrum of guitar with a bitter singalong. Thao Nguyen piqued the audience with a call-and-answer of "oh no" and "but I loved you" on "Fool Forever" (which proved more successful than the last time she tried her hand at audience participation in Houston). The evocative song rang out as an indictment juiced up with anger; lines like "to be scarce is to be king" ratcheted up the set to a place of fiery animus.

Nguyen proved herself to be a fearless multi-instrumentalist, shifting between mandolin, banjo and guitar with creative determination. On "Slash/Burn," she even played her guitar with a drumstick, and on "Beat," she joined in a band-wide effort to bang on the drums. It takes a rare musician to make a mandolin sound metal, but Nguyen makes it happen.

When the band drifted into its back catalog, it also drifted away from the harder currents of A Man Alive. Both "Age of Ice" and "Kindness Be Conceived" swelled with country flavors, pumping the room full of twanging banjo riffs that got lost in Warehouse's concrete walls. Notes of the band's older sound also reverberated on "Guts," the bluesy, memorably plaintive song about a moving on from heartache. But the interludes of these older tracks still embraced some of the gristle found on the newer album; sentimental fans of the old stuff would have to tolerate that this band refuses the stagnation that can so often come after a few moderately successful albums.

After all this noise and grit, it was fitting that the band wrapped its set with "Meticulous Bird," which Nguyen dedicated to the "survivors of all kinds of abuses." The song is a haphazard mix of bass beats and horror-show synthesizers, but its message of vindication —  "now I perch above you/ meticulous bird of prey" — proved to be a benediction to those who suffer grievously in silence. Beyond the song's reparative intent for its audience, the refrain of "I find the scene of the crime/ I take my body back" was a fitting one for Nguyen herself, who gave so much of her body to the show. "Meticulous Bird" becomes a way for Nguyen to reclaim herself from the enervation of live performance.

But in the end, Houston refused to let the members of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down take their bodies back, insisting on an encore. The band delivered a superb cover of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," which rang out with funk and authenticity. Its final song, "We the Common," inspired righteous head-banging. The night ended much where it began — with loud guitars, stomping kick drums and a reminder: Houston loves to rock.

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