Photo: David Brusie
On her new Kill Rock Stars release, Know Better Learn Faster, Thao Nguyen starts the song "Easy" with this line, spoken matter-of-factly: "Sad people dance too." That sentiment is also fitting for Nguyen's work in general. Her songs both deal with heartbreak and longing, but often to the strains of her catchy choruses and choppy, funky, and melodic guitar playing. Likewise, her vocal delivery can be at once childlike-vulnerable, knowing, and tough.
She reinforced the juxtapositon Tuesday night at the Middle East, where - her diminutive frame outsized by her hollow-body guitar - Nguyen put on a sweaty, glorious show.
Nguyen's set started with she and her band - who perform under the name the Get Down Stay Down - entering to a recording of "The Clap," the first track off their new disc. The church-like stomper prepared the audience for the absurd amount of energy to follow. First came the mid-tempo "Beat (Health, Life and Fire)," followed by the blistering "Body," with its chorus "What am I, just a body in your bed?/Won't you reach for the body in your bed?", which featured Nguyen thrashing around the stage in a blur.
The audience ate it up, and rightly so; this was a startlingly cathartic and inclusive performance, full of clap-alongs and sing-alongs, the crowd acting as a collective fifth band member.
"Last night we were in Montreal, and it was quiet," said Nguyen. "And I thought, ‘I can't wait to get to Boston.' " The crowd erupted, both for hometown pride and in celebration of noise. Despite this remark, Nguyen's music can be equal parts bluster and breeze, and the quieter moments - the shuffling "Big Kid Table," the easygoing "Violet" - provided much-needed breaths before the chaos began anew.
The chaos, though, was essential to the show's success. Near the set's end, Nguyen, her band, and guests from opening bands stormed through the slow-burning rave-up "Feet Asleep" as if their lives depended on it. Among the relentless kick drum, thumping bass, and the virtuosic cyclone of movement onstage, you could presume that sad people were dancing too.
---By David Brusie