LIVE REVIEW: THAO
By Anh Nguyen
Standing by the stage of Paradise Rock Club, I began anticipating what Thao’s speaking voice would sound like. Despite listening to her on repeat for the past week, I realized at that moment that I don’t actually know what her speaking voice sounds like. An unimportant thought, but nonetheless, one that preoccupied me out of pure excitement.
I stood next to a concert-goer who told me she was there mainly for the opening act, Becca Mancari. She called Becca “the lesbian Harry Styles.” I hadn’t heard of Becca before that day, but this statement alone told me all I needed to know (and she absolutely lived up to it). We made exchanges about how she didn’t know about Thao before today, and how I intentionally didn’t listen to Becca’s music before coming to let myself be pleasantly surprised. The one thing we agreed on was the excitement of finding an artist for the first time through a concert, knowing there’s usually artistic similarities which often lead opening acts and main acts to tour together in the first place.
The opening acts, Why Bonnie and Becca Mancari, put on sensational performances. Based on how they’ve made their ways into my Spotify listening activity since that day, I can say that they’ve left a good impression. They were good enough to make me briefly forget about the nerves I had, anticipating Thao’s stage presence.
Before even stepping on stage, the extensive ensemble of strings on stage, as well as the double microphones positioned where she will stand told me enough about what to expect.
I had never been as artistically intimidated by anyone as I was when Thao walked on stage, in a bodysuit made of reflective sequins – like the most talented disco ball I had ever seen.
When the first five strums of “Temple” played, I braced myself for impact. The first line of the song immediately brought me to tears. It was only the fourth song of the set, but it set the tone for the rest of the show. The line “bury the burden baby,” I can identify with; but it’s “I have earned this sorrow, mine to keep” that gets me every time. It sends chills running through my entire body. I guess I hadn’t known how much representation in music meant to me until this moment.
In the introduction to the 2020 re-release of a 2017 documentary titled Nobody Dies, chronicling Thao’s journey to Vietnam for the first time with her mother, she talks about using her heritage as a source of inspiration for her latest album Temple. “I came up in music at a time when emphasizing my ethnicity all too often meant being reduced or distilled to it, so I avoided my ethnicity as best I could. Avoiding it became a bad reflex,” said Thao. Her performance that night affirmed the way she is able to reclaim her heritage, and create an artist identity that is uniquely hers. Intentional or not, her queerness and Vietnamese heritage are parts that I, and many others, find inspirational.
My jaw dropped from the very first moment, when she picked up her guitar and began the set with “Departure,” and remained dropped for the rest of the night (luckily it was all hidden under a mask). I was completely captivated – everything from the way she swayed left to right, to the way she dabbled with every instrument on stage, but not in any way that outshined her incredible band members.
How good an artist’s stage presence is, to me, is determined by how much it looks like they’re just having fun. And that was exactly what I saw being in Thao’s presence. In between moments where she was controlling the crowd in chants, or jamming out to a surprise remix of “Bad Girls” by M.I.A., she was zoned into her own world. Unbothered and confident, performing a craft it seems she has perfected.
Thao was able to go between more intimate songs like “How Could I,” a song about her grandmother’s passing, to a more ferocious and uninhibited energy, as executed in “Meticulous Bird.” Hearing the repeated Buddhist chant “na mô a di đà phật” during “How Could I” made me feel like we shared a personal exchange, even in a crowded room. It’s a small detail of intention that anyone could appreciate, but understanding the language made it all the more special.
The set ended with “Marrow,” a song she wrote about her wife before they got married. However, she came back for an encore with some older songs. In the words of Becca Mancari during her set: “How great is it to have two queer women of color on tour.”
The tour was originally planned for 2020, following the release of Thao’s studio album Temple, but ,like many good things in life over the past few years, it got delayed because of the pandemic. As Why Bonnie put it: “It’s a great feeling, some would even say euphoric, to be playing live again.”
The two openers repeatedly showed gratitude for people showing out, as we begin to regain these experiences again, supporting “good music.” That was, simply put, exactly what the concert was. Good music and excellent artistry.
In Thao’s performance, I have found my own temple.