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March Music Highlights From Thao, Heron Oblivion and Los Cenzontles

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Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down (Courtesy Maria Kanevskaya)

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, 'A Man Alive'

Last time we checked in with Thao Nguyen, she’d been evoking Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, strumming a banjo outside a women’s prison and singing her “We the Common” as a protest through a battery-powered megaphone.

With her new album, she sounds like she’s been spending some time on the dance floor. Rhythm is the most immediately notable currency of  “A Man Alive," maybe more Prince than Pete. Or Tune-Yards. And that latter is no coincidence. The album was produced by Merrill Garbus — Tune-Yards herself. And right from the opening global-minded drumbeats of "Astonished Man," there’s the spirited hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show sparkle that’s been core to Tune-Yards shows.

Not that Nguyen and her band didn’t already have that spirit. The “We the Common” album three years ago saw them shifting across a variety of instrumental combinations and sounds. With Garbus on board, they sound like kids let loose in a roomful of instruments and devices, but with two guiding mottos: Anything is possible, but less is more.


Arty, percussive “The Evening” is joyful, spare funk — that Prince thing, though with some Talking Heads bounce, perhaps — leaning to the pop side of the pop art formulae at work. The next song, though, “Departure,” goes heavier on the art, with weird electronics and effects, and what sounds like Garbus’ distinctive voice in the background. That duality continues its shifting balance through the album, to great effect.

She’s still got a lot to say, still wants to put herself on the front lines. “I’ve got my guts, I don’t need my blood,” she sings on the new song, “Guts,” sounding tested but determined. The most arresting words come on “Nobody Dies,” as she gets inside an all-too-familiar test we all face: “We act like nobody dies,” she sings, anguishing over “what to say” when, presumably, inevitably, that proves untrue. And at the end, a distorted guitar takes over for the questioning voices as words fail to manifest. And you can dance to it.

Heron Oblivion, 'Heron Oblivion'

The Heron? Meg Baird’s earthy yet elegant voice, taking flight almost effortlessly.

Oblivion? Sonic blasts from fuzzed-out guitars and bass from Noel V. Harmonson, Ethan Miller and Charlie Saufley.

Together they soar and sear, sometimes in turn, sometimes at once, freaky psychedelic folk mixing with freak-out psychedelic rock, like long-ringing echoes from the stage of the Fillmore circa ’68.

Heron Oblivion
Heron Oblivion (Courtesy Alissa Anderson)

None of that will be a surprise to anyone familiar with Baird’s solo work or tenure in folky band Espers and/or with the ear-rattling sounds of Bay Area band Comets on Fire, former home to Harmonson and Miller. Nor will it disappoint one bit. It really won’t disappoint if you miss those days of the Fillmore. Or if you rue having missed those days entirely.

The guitarists favor the tremulous tones that were the signatures of Jorma Kaukonen in the Jefferson Airplane and John Cipollina in Quicksilver Messenger Service.

And if opener “Beneath Fields” is more shoegaze-y than the Airplane or Quicksilver ever got (Baird’s introspective words as much as the music), the chords that blast open the next song, “Oriar,” erase that impression, alternating with lyrical folk-rock choruses, gorgeous and mystical, framed by the instrumental power.

Yet there is strong appeal well beyond nostalgia, most attractively in the straighter, catchy folk-rock of “Sudden Lament,” as close to a pop song structure as this gets. And several longer songs — one runs more than 10 minutes, two others more than seven — are marked by strong blends of mystique-filled power and grace.

Closer “Your Hollows” adds organ for a richer swirl of sounds, nicely expressing questions posed by Baird as she contemplates what’s going on in the head of a (her?) young child: “The shadows left your mind — shadows will forgive all in time.” And this is the sound of those shadows.

Los Cenzontles, 'Covers'

In its 25 years, the musical arm of the East Bay’s Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy has covered pretty much all the bases of Latin folk and roots music. Now it’s covering, uh, covers.

Looking to some different roots, founder Eugene Rodriguez and his crew of young talent are taking on songs by nine of their favorite rock and pop artists spanning the ’60s through the ’00s, to be posted on the band’s YouTube and Facebook pages over the course of the next several weeks starting next Friday.

Los Cenzontles
Los Cenzontles (Courtesy Los Cenzontles)

Though Los Cenzontles means “the mockingbirds,” there are no mere copies of the originals. One of the two that will be released in the inaugural posting is “I Think of You,” a relative obscurity by Sixto Rodriguez — the subject of the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” — given a mariachi treatment, horns and all.

It’s a great introduction to the series, which includes similar Latinized interpretations of Bob Dylan (“Just Like a Woman”), ELO (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head”), Jimi Hendrix (“Little Wing”), Randy Newman (“Memo to My Son”), the Pogues (“A Pair of Brown Eyes”) David Bowie (“Young Americans,” pointedly), the Killers (“When You Were Young”) and, spoiler alert, the final cover, a Latin-pop version of “Every Kind of People.” Of the latter, Rodriguez says, “We need that message today.”

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