Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down with tUnE-YaRdS, A Weather Thursday, July 24, 2008 Hi-Dive Better than: Mixing ukulele melodies, African tribal chants, honky-tonk half-steps, plaintive vocals and straightforward drum beats on your home stereo system.
I’m a sucker for the tones and timbres of old-timey country music.
Give me a loping 2/4 rhythm spelled out on the kick drum and the ride cymbal, melodies thick with half-step intervals and three-part harmonies, and I’m liable to wane nostalgic for a musical era that officially ended decades before I was born.
Thao Nguyen and two-piece backup band, the Get Down Stay Down, included plenty of these musical ingredients during their hi-dive performance, along with a considerable dose of more contemporary cues. Indeed, along with opening acts the tUnE-YaRdS and A Weather, the performance boasted a wide array of sounds and structures, from the avant-garde to the backwoods.
A Weather’s opening set laid a lilting and lazy mood for the night. The quintet, based in Portland, Ore., gave a staid and sober performance, one rooted in slow tempos and pained vocals. Vocalists Sarah Winchester and Aaron Gerber stuck to a narrow range in their vocals, but their understated approach lent their harmonies a haunting effect. Supplemented by Winchester’s sparse style on drums and the band’s stark approach to keyboard and strings, A Weather managed to pull of an affecting, if somewhat sedate, set.
tUnE-YaRdS’ follow-up set could not have been more of a contrast to A Weather’s plaintive approach. Merrill Garbus’s one-woman band incorporated a revolving set of sounds via loops and a rhythmic approach pulled straight from tribal chants. Toting a ukulele and an arsenal of bizarre vocal chants, Garbus managed a sound that was at once dissonant and congruous.
For tUnE-YaRdS’ final song, Nguyen and her band joined in, providing a preview of the sharp tones and driving beats that would follow.
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While Nguyen’s kinetic attack on the fretboard and impassioned vocal styles were very much rooted in rock and roll, the songs’ structures and the band’s underlying approach took inspiration from backwoods stomps and honky-tonk jaunts. Nguyen alternated between fierce flatpicking for solos, and melodious finger-picking for certain rhythm sections. The mixed technique created a technique that recalled Travis-picking masters of the country genre, while her approach to chord structure, which ranged from high to low registers, held echoes of Chet Atkins.
As a backup band, The Get Down and Stay Down duo performed its duty admirably. Alternating between a jaunty backbeat for the more country-infused tunes and a driving cadence for the harder, rock songs, the band stepped between syncopated sounds straight from Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison album to a more straightforward alt-country rhythm reminiscent of early Cracker.
All told, the evening boasted a wide range of genres and musical textures. Happily, there were enough twangy tones, easy beats and emotive vocals to sate anyone’s inner hillbilly. -- A.H. Goldstein
Critic's notebook: Personal bias: Both A Weather and tUnE-YaRdS’ songs suffered from repetitious structures, and by the end of the set, the tunes tended to bleed together. I’m all for hushed emotional power and odd ukulele sounds, but it’s difficult to keep fresh. Random Detail: The tUnE-YaRdS’ Garbus made a guest appearance on tenor uke and vocals during Nguyen’s set added another texture to the ensemble, giving the band a more string-heavy, country feel. By the way: Mixing vocals that sound as if they’re pulled from African chants with a tinny ukulele doesn’t always work to your advantage, nor the audience’s.