On my way to see Thao & the Get Down Stay Down at Webster Hall, I was verbally harassed by a man on the subway. The 4 train was crowded and he was sitting uncomfortably close, making comments about my appearance. As we approached Union Square, I leaped out of my seat, eager to escape, only to realize we were delayed just short of the platform. I was trapped standing in front of him; his words grew increasingly vulgar until I finally started screaming at him. When I was finally able to exit the car, I was shaking.
Women face these encounters (and worse) every day, in every city, with strangers and kin alike. And it takes bravery to navigate them, whether that means confronting those who would do harm, or just keeping your head up but walking on without a word.
I think about that bravery when I listen to Thao Nguyen’s latest album, A Man Alive. Her sixth studio album, and most personal to date, is a vital reckoning in which she comes to terms with having an absentee father. The album’s biting, clever lyrics are mostly addressed to him directly, but Nguyen doesn’t couch these difficult sentiments in the country-infused folk of her early solo work. Such honest jabs fit much better in her combustible, hip-hop inflected art pop. That tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus helped produce the album is telling; never before have Nguyen’s vocals harbored so much texture, feeling, and rhythm. And Nguyen brought it all to Webster Hall’s stage on Wednesday, not only to exorcise her own demons, but to provide catharsis for her fans as well.
Opening with funk-tinged “The Evening,” which functions as a sort-of title track for A Man Alive, Nguyen gave no impression that performing these songs every night on tour has lessened their emotional impact. She fluently switched between guitar, mandolin, and banjo (for “Holy Roller,” from 2013’s We the Common), hitting her stride early on with a spirited rendition of “Departure.” Nguyen may be grappling with the phantom limbs of a gnarled family tree, but the defiance with which she sings lines like “Half of all my blood in vain” makes her delinquent parentage sound like a badge of honor.
Even in the context of a rock show, Nguyen acknowledges pain unflinchingly. Before launching into “Fool Forever,” she asked the audience to channel their “deep, dark pain” and sing along. “Don’t pretend we don’t all have it,” she said, laughing. She also expertly interjected “Millionaire,” the poignant, heartbreaking centerpiece of A Man Alive, into the set, playing it with only her Get Down Stay Down guitarist on stage. And before “Meticulous Bird,” Nguyen explained its inspiration: survivors, specifically of sexual assault. Nguyen isn’t a rapper, but she delivers its half-spoken, half-sung lines with Kanye-level bravado: “I find the scene of the crime/I take my body back.” The band was joined by a four-person dance crew who didn’t hesitate to throw down; they returned for an encore that included an inspired cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.”
A Man Alive is a not-so-subtle reminder that we all have pain, we all have trauma. We all have bad days on the train, or tension in our relationships. For Nguyen, dancing has always equaled reclamation of the body and spirit. That’s why she’s performing some of the most powerful music of her career with hip-hop and indie rock inflection — her bravery comes in the form of a dope beat.