Thao + Mirah
Led to Sea
May 2, 2007
Better than: Group therapy, Advil Severe Cold & Sinus
As it turns out, one thing that happens when two singer-songwriters with feverishly dedicated cult followings join forces is that the atmosphere at a live show in their hometown is positive and energetic to the point that it borders on ridiculous. Which was fortunate last night, considering certain people in attendance were suffering from debilitating head colds that kept them home from work that day and would easily have prevented them from attending pretty much any other show. I knew this one was gonna be good.
In San Francisco after almost two months on the road in a tour van they named Oprah (the GPS, naturally, was dubbed Gayle), Thao (Nguyen) and Mirah (Yom Tov Zeitlyn) seemed genuinely giddy to be back last night -- and they had the extended playground-style hand-clapping games, gleeful three-person drum parts, and lengthy viola jams (yes, jams) to prove it.
"It is sooo fucking good to be home," said Thao, with the trademark husk in her voice and shake of her hips, before jumping -- literally, in her cowboy boots -- into "Body," one of her more recognizable singles with the Get Down Stay Down; Mirah's airy, lilting vocals softened the song at the chorus. A few minutes later, on Mirah's "Dogs of BA," Thao's staccato yelps and wails lent a more punk-rock urgency to the delicate tune. If Thao is the supercharismatic but maybe slightly ADHD kid you can't take your eyes off of in class, Mirah is your level-headed older sister who still knows how to throw on a pair of fishnets and have fun. She just needed someone to ask her.
Perhaps more surprising than how well the two have succeeded in writing songs together (11 of them, to be precise, on this summer's aptly titled Thao + Mirah) is how naturally and eagerly they complement each other's fairly different solo work. Onstage with four other ladies for most of the set -- among them opener Led to Sea's stunningly talented violist L. Alex Guy -- they appeared enthralled by each other. At times they were basically having a drum circle/dance party that you somehow got invited to watch.
The new songs are certainly good: the heavily produced "Eleven," featuring Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, breaks new ground for both of them; "Little Cup" and "How Dare You" do a good job of showcasing and playing off their vocal ranges. But it's safe to say the solo stuff is what most people were there for, what most fans have deeply embedded associations with, what made the whole scene feel a bit like group therapy.
Twenty bucks says, upon announcing that you're attending a Thao & Mirah show, that at least three people will casually mention a particular Thao or Mirah song that helped them through a nasty breakup. So it makes sense that there were moments last night when, with no more than a cursory glance around, you could count at least five separate groups of (mainly female) friends clutching at each other, drinks in hand, happy tears streaming down their cheeks. Couples in matching plastic square-rimmed glasses reached for each other's hands.
The circle-of-trust attitude was contagious. Have you ever been to a show where every single person in line for the women's bathroom was exceedingly polite and welcoming? Me neither. "I hope they don't play anything I love while I'm in here," sighed the girl in front of me. "Should I just open the door, so we can all hear?" asked the girl closest to the entrance, wide-eyed. Everyone agreed enthusiastically. Lots of smiling and nodding.
The whole thing felt a bit surreal. It almost would have been almost worrisome, had the sound of Mirah's voice soaring above the viola on "Hallelujah" not eliminated the possibility of feeling worried about anything at all. And I'm sure all the cold medicine didn't hurt.
Personal Bias: Thao ranks pretty high on my list of Ladies Who Make Me Think Critically About My Sexual Orientation. I might pay to watch her perform "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for two hours straight.
By the way: Thao and Mirah have been working with the nonprofit Air Traffic Control to arrange for this tour to benefit women's shelters and domestic violence support centers; last night's beneficiary was S.F. Women Against Rape.
Quote of the night: "It's been seven women in a van, and we did all watch the Oprah goodbye special together, and there was some crying. We keep meaning to watch Thelma and Louise but, um, there hasn't really been enough time." -- Mirah