Thao Nguyen at Swedish American Hall (Feb. 19)
It was no surprise that the “special guest” billed for Noise Pop’s opening night show on Monday at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall ended up being Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. After all, the dynamic singer-songwriter is more than just a local favorite — it would be an understatement to say that she is one of the linchpins of the San Francisco music scene. Who could possibly be a better choice to kick off an event that celebrates the diversity of sights, shapes and sounds that exist in the Bay Area artistic community?
The event was an intimate affair by design, open to only a handful of festival badge-holders. This planned intimacy constructed by Noise Pop may have felt artificial, but this feeling became insignificant in the face of the genuine magic woven by Nguyen’s set. It was impossible to not gravitate toward the beauty of her music as she sang, strummed and joked with the audience.
Nguyen was at once tender and abrasive. She held each of her instruments — from her mandolin to her banjo — with maternal care, caressing sweet melodies out of each. Her voice bent with the weight of her words, snapping from smoothness to yearning gasps as powerful lyrically as they were tonally. Nguyen possessed a command of her repertoire that can only ever come from cycles upon cycles of careful rehearsal. Yet, she played with such a softly violent passion that it was as if she was birthing each song for the first time on stage in front of everyone.
Each break from a song’s familiar, studio-recorded melody felt like an ephemeral secret shared between Nguyen and her captive audience — one that could never be shared or explained, only understood and guarded. These breaks characterize Nguyen’s show, rendering her live performance as possessing the power to eclipse her studio recordings completely.
Mount Eerie at Swedish American Hall (Feb. 22)
When Phil Elverum, better known as Washington-based musician Mount Eerie, laid bare the unadorned truths of his wife’s death on 2017’s A Crow Looked At Me, it was hard to imagine that there was any way for this grief to become any more palpable. On Thursday’s show at Swedish American Hall, Elverum proved without much effort that this was far from true.
No tricks of light or of sound concealed Elverum from the audience as he sat alone — save for his guitar — across from rows of captivated listeners seated in identical, white wooden chairs. Their faces became identical canvases, painted slowly in the aftermath of seeing loss deconstructed before their very eyes.
The show ended with “Crow, Pt. 2,” a song from Elverum’s yet-to-be-released Now Only. Thematically, the song fell along the same lines as the already-familiar songs from A Crow Looked at Me, yet its novelty made it uniquely emotionally affecting.
Needless to say, Elverum’s performance — much like his album — contained few moments of reprieve from his head-on confrontations with the realities of death and loss. There were even fewer moments of relief from the tension created by his lyrics’ message that loss is harsh — that it’s difficult to process and even more difficult to live through.
Yet it is this very same urgency with which Elverum forces his audience to partake in grief that makes his show compelling. It’s impossible to leave Elverum behind without feeling some form of catharsis. It’s even more impossible to leave without feeling fundamentally changed — to leave without having felt loss once more.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down and Tune-Yards at Fox Theater (Feb. 23)
Nguyen’s second appearance at Noise Pop — this time backed by a full band and billed as Thao & the Get Down Stay Down rather than simply as “special guest” — came Friday at Oakland’s Fox Theater. While Nguyen performed many of the same songs that she had played at her solo set, there was little resemblance to the way she had performed just a few days prior.
In that span of time, tenderness and abrasiveness merged to become a soft resilience. If on Monday Nguyen was birthing her songs, on Friday, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down was sending them out into the world as dazzling, fully grown beings of their own. Even her stage presence transformed completely — while she had previously dominated the venue with the singular intensity of her voice, now she did so with the fierce vivacity of her movement as well.
The night ended with a set from Nguyen’s former collaborator Merrill Garbus, better known as the Oakland-based Tune-Yards. Garbus has a voice that cannot be buried. It uses every sound that is flung at it as another step upwards on its journey to some divine, luminous quality. It has a rich warmth that blurs the distinction between auditory and visual sensation and weaves together a rich tapestry in which light, shadow, sound and silence are one and the same.
The problem with Tune-Yards, actually, is that Garbus’ voice is a bit too beautiful. It is all too easy to be pushed into confusion over whether to rest for just a moment within the cavernous warmth of Garbus’ voice or to move along to the carefully layered percussion and end up, ultimately, at a literal standstill.
Foozool and Sevdaliza at Swedish American Hall (Feb. 24)
By now it should be common knowledge that no one goes to a Sevdaliza show to dance — everyone goes to see Sevdaliza herself move and to marvel over the fact that somehow every move she makes is more perfect in real life than in her videos.
It seems like a bit of a misstep, then, to have sound artist and Club Chai cofounder Foozool (also known as Lara Sarkissian) open up Sevdaliza’s sold-out show at Swedish American Hall with a DJ set. Foozool pulled together arrhythmic, atonal and amorphous masses of sound with delicate piano melodies and downright danceable beats, serving up a set that made these disparate elements coherent and even fun. To a crowd of fans with one-track minds who attended for no one but the headliner herself, none of this meant anything. Sarkissian’s beautifully balanced set faded away into the night, meeting with reactions ranging from simple boredom to outright hostility.
When Sevdaliza finally sauntered onto the stage, met with a microphone adorned with red roses and snow-white baby’s breath, her surreal presence made it nearly impossible to tell whether she was a real flesh-and-blood being or an impeccably rendered hologram — an effect that was ironic given the lyrics to “Human,” the most popular track from her 2017 album ISON.
It wasn’t just that she seemed unreal — she seemed untouchable too, as if anyone who approached her would dissolve into thin air by the power generated through the beauty and grace of her voice and motion alone. When a second dancer joined her onstage, it was easier to believe that the two were only able to come into contact because he, too, was some sort of digital form than to believe that Sevdaliza could possibly be a mere mortal.
The mythology that Sevdaliza has constructed around herself — whether or not she has done so intentionally — was powerful enough to absorb those who surrounded her at the Swedish American Hall into it as well.