Getting down with Thao and The Get Down Stay Down
WANT TO GO?
"Mountain Stage," with Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, The Bottle Rockets, Ben Sollee, The Slide Brothers and The Howlin' Brothers
WHERE: Culture Center Theater
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: Advance $15, at the door $25 INFO: 800-594-TIXX or www.mountainstage.org
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the great things about "Mountain Stage" is, musically, the show goes everywhere. From week to week, and sometimes from artist to artist on the same show, "Mountain Stage" can go from Americana to avant-garde to Afro-pop to fuzz-rock.
Sunday's show at the Culture Center brings Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, a folk rock band fronted by Thao Nguyen, a singer/songwriter from Falls Church, Va., whose parents were Vietnamese immigrants.
Her music is a delirious mix of string band, hip-hop and alternative rock with very folksy-sounding lyrics -- like what Regina Spektor might be doing if she'd grown up in a laundromat in Virginia listening to bluegrass.
"I grew up in Virginia," Nguyen said. "I went to school in Williamsburg, where I got a lot of my musical influences."
Nguyen pointed out that not all of those influences were necessarily good ones.
"I did the typical teenage thing and listened to really terrible music -- bad alternative rock."
She listened to a lot radio: Top 40 pop hits, oldies, Motown and country music, as well as classic rock. At some point, her brother gave her a Def Leppard record.
All of that means something, but maybe not as much as what she sought out.
"The music I listened to was very different than the music I went to see live," she said. "I'd catch these free shows at the Kennedy Center, and I'd go to these local, tiny bars where you'd see these blues and country players."
What she saw live, Nguyen thought, stuck in her mind more than much of what she heard on the radio.
She said, "It depends on the song, but there's always roots of that music in what I write."
Nguyen picked up her first guitar when she was 12.
"It was an old beat-up guitar nobody played in our house," she said. "I played that for a few years."
Later, she got a job at Guitar Center and picked out a nicer one, but before that, she was writing songs. She started writing songs almost at the same time she was learning to play.
In college, while studying sociology and women's studies at William & Mary, she often performed solo at bars and coffeehouses in the surrounding cities, which was where she met bassist and keyboard player Adam Thompson.
"We were both on the bill at the same coffeehouse," she said. "I was in school in Williamsburg. He was in school at Richmond."
The two of them hit it off, and Thompson helped her put together a backing band that evolved into the Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.
"I was going on tour, but I didn't want solo shows," she said. "I wanted more of a rock band."
Critical success has followed, along with a heavy touring schedule and five records. The latest is "We The Common," which is partly inspired by Nguyen's life after she relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco.
"I love the pacing of San Francisco," she said. "And I love the fresh produce. Fresh produce is really important to me; it's almost disproportionately important to me. And I love the proximity to water."
It's probably a bit more than that.
Aside from settling in California and taking a break from life on the road, Nguyen got involved with California's Coalition for Women's Prisoners, a grassroots women's prisoner advocacy group that, among other things, visits prisons, lobbies state government and tries to inform the public about prison conditions and abuses.
Nguyen said she planned to tour for the next couple of months but hoped to get home to San Francisco some.
"I'm just so well-suited to the place," she said. Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.