Thao with The Get Down Stay Down, The Barfly, London

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The Independent Culture

Thao Nguyen and accompanying instrumental talent The Get Down Stay Down play this first London show on the back of their latest album, Know Better Learn Faster (2009). Hailing from Virginia, and now residing in San Francisco, the band is signed to Kill Rock Stars, a label synonymous with the experimental music scene of North America that it is credited with shaping into the current contemporary-musical vanguard.

Thao's music is characterised by a profound intensity and raw energy. Their style aligns itself with an array of merging genres; folk and classical collide with rock, country and blues. The songs themselves encompass a sonic travelogue that hurtles through the mysteries of the fragmented heart. The intimacies of human interaction and prevailing sensitivity take form on this impressionable lyrical landscape.

If the lyrics are an exploration on the themes of rejection, regret and love's frustrations, the flowing melodies are juxtaposed to raise us out of the melancholic state. This musical alchemy is one of catharsis; a transmutation of hand-clapping, string arrangements and catchy guitars create an elixir that heals and lifts the heavy heart and awakens the deadened senses.

The trio take to the stage late, and in apologetic tones front-woman Thao informs us of the theft of her guitar. It is clear the recent heist has affected band members' resolve, but eventually the set gets underway. The logistics of environment, and the timing – it's early in the week – make things feel out of sync, and a passive and listless crowd are coupled with a venue devoid of atmosphere. Disappointingly, the night fails to create the symbiotic relationship essential between artist and crowd.

The band consciously accelerate throughout this performance to reveal their musical mettle, pushing through a set list comprised of songs taken from Know Better and the previous album, We Brave Bee Stings and All (2008), with striking dexterity. Thao's voice is rich and naturally expressive, subtle yet rooted in a deep layering of recondite choral textures. The lyrics may expound upon the introspective moments of heartfelt sadness and pain, but her vocal delivery is one of torrid acceptance. Gaining in momentum, highly charged with emotion, her voice has the power to transcend and renew.