The most prevalent image of the one-woman band is little more than an impressive caricature. She is the figure that appears in cartoons as at the three-way intersection between talent, desperation and absurdity. She is accomplished but hardly convincing, not at all awe-inspiring. Above all, the one-woman band is not powerful — she is seen for a moment, perhaps remarked upon as a spectacle, and finally left to continue busking without so much as a penny or a second thought sent her way.
At Wednesday’s show at The Chapel in San Francisco, Thao of the San Francisco-based folk rock group Thao & The Get Down Stay Down shattered this caricature of the one-woman band and built a three-dimensional vision of power and resilience in its place.
Thao strolled with a perfect blend of ease and intention onto a stage adorned with string instruments of every size, shape and timbre. She picked out a bass guitar from the bunch and opened her set with “Body.” As she began, there was a clear distance between Thao-the-singer and Thao-the-instrumentalist. When she took to the mic, her voice was pointed but dulled by a subtle weariness. When she stepped away for the song’s instrumental interludes, she reemerged with the effortless intention that she had embodied walking onto the stage. She was in control of any instrument she took up even as she gently released herself to it, allowing it to gently push and pull her.
Regarding her tour, Thao told the crowd, “no one commissioned it; I commissioned it myself. I thought, you know, why not play songs by myself about myself.” With this simple gesture of ownership over her performance, Thao became infinitely more open and at ease. It was at this moment that Thao’s stage presence at the mic instantaneously blossomed to match her stage presence when she was alone with her instruments.
The weariness of her presence at the mic during songs melted away entirely as her lyrics became punctuated by incisive gazes into the audience. Meanwhile her demeanor between songs bounced between the playful and the earnest as appropriate. At one point in the show she responded to a fan’s cry of “I love you” by telling the audience, “I wish I could reciprocate but I have a fear of commitment. Actually that was when I was in my 20s. I think I’m growing past that.”
The crowd was quick to recognize the change in Thao’s demeanor. In “Give Me Peace,” Thao offered serenity dramatized by the chaos of silence. The venue stood still, treasuring the experience of seeing Thao reach within herself and present a beautifully constructed stillness of her own.
It was at the very end of the set that Thao unleashed the full power of her stage presence. “Guts,” a breezily melancholic track on the record, took on a new life in Thao’s live show. She performed with a bracing play between sadness and snarling in her voice, transforming casual sorrow into cutting spite before returning to a state of placidity.
The show’s most powerful moment was Thao’s performance of “Meticulous Bird.” Introducing the song, she told the crowd “I wrote this song for survivors of sexual violence. Please take care of one another and stand on the side of justice and of humanity.” Her voice took on a fierceness and moved through the full spectrum of tones available to her. Thao moved about the stage, ferocious and powerful, and her full body became an electrifying conductor for her performance. Then all of a sudden, the music ended and everything became placid again.
Thao’s greatest asset as a performer is full control over every element of her performance. Just as easily as she can become a one-woman band using her voice, her body and her variety of string instruments to swirl up a storm on stage, she can bring everything to a complete standstill.
Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected].