Noise Pop 2012: Thao Nguyen and John Vanderslice at Bottom of the Hill 2/23/12

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Noise Pop aficionados weathered the trek over to San Francisco’s remote venue Bottom of the Hill Thursday night to mill around and wait for Thao Nguyen to come onstage and play with her characteristic swagger.

That meant that the audience was hefty even for openers Bird By Snow — a one-man act who looped layers upon layers into a sort of meditative vibe — and Garrett Pierce, who swung between acoustic ballads and sensitive-guy rock pieces (complete with a pink paisley guitar).

But when co-headliner John Vanderslice took the stage, he packed it full of classical performers from Magik*Magik orchestra, boasting everything from a string quartet to a bass clarinet. The result was a full, idiosyncratic sound — backed by an excellent drummer — that pushed the frontman through tracks like “Sea Salt,” “Promising Actress” and the effervescent “Convict Lake” with a Beirut-esque orchestral sound.

Vanderslice, sporting a t-shirt that proclaimed “A Less Totally Fucked World,” pared his ensemble halfway through the set down to a few backers and went more in a jam-like direction, soloing to his heart’s content in “Kookaburra” — and much to the audience’s amusement, he insisted on redoing the end to that song when it didn’t go quite right the first time, saying he wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise.

Then, well, Thao Nguyen happened.

The tiny performer popped out to set up her equipment and then ran off to make a costume change into a blue romper before jumping head-first into her set. Nguyen’s nimble guitar skills distinguish her from other easy-strumming female singer-songwriters, but it’s her live performance charisma — a neurotic, hair-whipping kind of swagger — that makes her memorable.

In her throaty and charmingly off-tune voice, she cycled through audience-pleasers like “When We Swam” and “Beat (Health, Life and Fire)” before she played a few new tracks for audience input and feedback. Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy” made perhaps the best guest star of the night, as Thao and backup singers unexpectedly busted out the familiar “I wanna li-li-li-lick you from your head to your toes” in the middle of an otherwise Thao-esque song. Well played.

Nguyen wrapped up with “Know Better Learn Faster,” “The Give” and “Bag of Hammers,” guiding the audience along to its jubilant chorus and showing off her timely banjo skills. Happy Noise Pop, everyone, and Nguyen made it that much happier.


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