It wasn’t Thao’s fault. Presented with an audience full of people who most likely discovered her through a well-curated Zite feed skimmed during a lunch break rather than any kind of real taste, she didn’t have a lot to work with. Houston’s newly minted members of the clean-cut business class all came out obediently for the show, cashing in on the cultural capital of the “insanely infectious, utterly charming” musician. The attendees buzzed and bounced with muted, compliant enthusiasm — hollowed out and heartless, cheerfully going through the motions and doing what they were told.
The beginning of Thao’s set, albeit a bit formulaic, was steady and strong. Her rendition of “Know Better Learn Faster” started the show with a mélange of moodiness and verve, and “City” brought an edgy yet melodic grunginess to the Fitzgerald’s stage. But the crowd merely blinked and bobbed in response to the heavy guitar riffs and chanting lyrics, only mechanically moving to the music.
Things took a turn for the worse when Thao asked the audience to help her out and sing “Holy Roller,” the fantastic first single off of her most recent release, We the Common. Despite the enthusiastic hollers from the crowd, the singalong just didn’t materialize — people just plum didn’t know the words.
This foreshadowed a night full of frustrated attempts at audience participation against a partition of oppressive solipsism: the sexy dismissiveness and slide guitar on “We Don’t Call” was met with mild sedation and “Age of Ice,” Thao’s lugubrious waltz of resignation, fell on a room full of people yammering excitedly about their spring breaks. Things reached unthinkable levels of irony and prophecy as she sang “takes a fine imagination/and a sound technology / to let loose the cold amnesia / over all the blood that beats.”
Some of the finer production points of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s work were regrettably lost on the live stage. Without Joanna Newsom’s delightful harmonies on “Kindness be Conceived,” the song came out stripped of the down-home charisma that fuels its appeal. And while “When We Swam” and “Move” featured a promisingly wide sampling of instruments, the performance lacked the quirky experimentalism that makes Thao unique.
Don’t get me wrong — I like Thao. Her music effervesces with magnetic edge. It’s experimental, fun, down-to-earth, and just a little dirty. But Houston wasn’t having any of that. Only two things roused the docile audience: (1) a rendition of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy” embedded into “Move” and (2) the announcement that the crowd would be filmed for the duration of “We the Common.” Learning from her mistakes on “Holy Roller,” Thao coached the audience through the chorus (“ooh, wah oooh, wah ooh,” etc.). She would have been better off filming the Ludacris cover, however — at least the crowd knew those lyrics.
Thao indulged a perfunctory encore of “Body” as if it were a hookup after a mediocre date: just easier to do it and get it over with than to confront a night of awkwardness and disappointment. “Body” is a fantastic, vindictive hit, one much beloved by Thao fans; nevertheless, the cries of “What am I? Just a body in your bed?” stirred only milquetoast politeness in the obliging audience. We can only hope that Thao will come back to Houston on a night when more folks are feeling the love.