Thao and Mirah with the Most of All at the Cedar, 7/1/10

Thao and Mirah with the Most of All at the Cedar, 7/1/10
Photos by Bre Mcgee

Thao and Mirah with the Most of All
July 1, 2010
The Cedar Cultural Center

A collaboration described in their press release to be "as accidentally intentional and charmed as a real-life love child," it was hard to know what to expect from the pairing of beloved indie singer/songwriters Thao Nguyen and Mirah heading into their show last night at the Cedar Cultural Center. Nguyen, 26, had proven herself a notoriously physical and hyperactive stage presence more than capable of commanding the spotlight all by her lonesome on previous sweeps through the Cities. And while I had never seen Mirah before in concert, it was hard to imagine how her more mannered and fragile folk-pop wouldn't be overshadowed by her nearly decade-younger contemporaries enviable energy levels.

Taking the term "co-headlining" to a collaborative extreme, the two vastly different performers joined their respective backing bands and swapped turns at the mic throughout their tandem 105-minute set. With six players crammed on to the Cedar's relatively modest stage, a number that swelled to ten multiple times when openers These United States were brought out to supply auxiliary percussion, the group mounted a giant wall of sound that made room for such unexpected instrumental delights as the banjo, bongos, violin, xylophone and clarinet alongside the usual guitars, bass and drums.

The evening was truly a lovefest between it's leading ladies, as both covered each other's material in the set and sang in unison on virtually every chorus. In what proved to be a wise decision that lessened the jarring differences between their material and seemed to allow Nguyen in particular to find her hyperkinetic groove, Mirah and Thao alternated leading the band through two and three song mini-sets rather than switching one on/one off. Most of the crowd was clearly there for Nguyen, which comes as little surprise given the fact that Mirah is only recently back into active music-making mode after taking a four-year hiatus, a period of time that's seen Thao release three increasingly buzzed-about albums and crisscross the country on tour numerous times.

Thao and Mirah with the Most of All at the Cedar, 7/1/10
Thao and Mirah with the Most of All at the Cedar, 7/1/10
Photos by Bre Mcgee

For those unfamiliar with Mirah she did manage to make a memorable first impression, proving that the studio-intensive material on her albums could translate effectively to the live setting stripped of any knob-twiddling effects. Her strongest songs appeared to be front-loaded in the set and found Mirah's sturdy electric guitar work supported by some seriously stellar lead play by Nguyen. Later Mirah tunes didn't make the leap to the live setting as effectively, playing more like live band karaoke as Nguyen and Mirah went guitar-less to lend their voices to a set of increasingly New Agey and aimless tracks (one tune sounded vaguely like indie-pop Klezmer). The last six or so Mirah tunes felt like moody soundscapes whose primary purpose was to act as a vocal and lyrical showcase, which would be fine if Mirah were a more distinctive singer or lyricist than she appeared to be this evening.

That being said, if Mirah was a (mostly) pleasant surprise, then Nguyen was a force of nature. The level of energy in the room shot up whenever she took over the mic to lead the large band through her cathartic rave-ups. A true guitar goddess, Nguyen's knotty and aggressive playing style shone through brightest on her own material, lending a visceral charge to tunes like "Body" and "Cool Yourself" that instantly got the roughly 80% of capacity crowd moving. She proved just as irresistible working her more melancholic and midtempo material ("But What of Strangers," "The Give") when the emphasis shifted from her six-string work to her penetrating and distinctive voice. While a great night in all, this critic couldn't help but pine for a full Nguyen headlining set. Her talent is simply too formidable to be splitting top billing with anyone.

Critc's bias: Devout Thao-ist, lukewarm Mirah listener
The Crowd: The children of Lillith Fair grown up to become 89.3 The Current listeners ashamed of the Jewel albums in their past.
Overheard in the crowd: "Growing up in California I knew like a dozen Thao Nguyen's ... Minnesota, not so much."
Random notebook dump:  Set-up was weird hybrid of seated/standing I had not seen at the Cedar before, with about 40 chairs set up in the far corner of the room, most of which remained empty during the headlining set.

1.    Thao - "The Clap"
2.    Mirah - "The Dogs of B.A."
3.    Thao - "Trouble Was For"
4.    Thao - "When We Swam"
5.    Mirah - ?
6.    Mirah - ?
7.    Thao - "But What of Strangers"
8.    Mirah - ?
9.    Thao - "Body"
10.    Thao "Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)"
11.    Mirah - ?
12.    Mirah - ?
13.    Thao - "Cool Yourself"
14.    Thao "Feet Asleep"
15.    Mirah - "NOLA"
16.    Mirah - ?
17.    Mirah - ?
18.    Thao - "Bag of Hammers" - first verse sung by Mirah
19.    Thao - Mirah Cover
20.    Thao - "Know Better Learn Faster"
21.    Mirah - ?
22.    Thao - "The Give"
23.    Mirah - "Cold Cold Water"
24.    Mirah - "The Garden (Disco Version)"

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