Donning a blue dress shirt, black skirt and a silver medallion around her neck, Sharon Van Etten stands center stage wearing an electric guitar. Her backup singer stands to her left behind a keyboard, while her bassist is to her right and drummer in the rear. The lights go down, and a slow organ note begins the show. Van Etten stares blankly into the crowd as she sings the quiet first lines of “All I Can.” What starts as a melancholy opening slowly swells into a dramatic anthem as the rest of the band gradually joins in.
“You learn from everything,” Van Etten somberly states in between songs after telling a story of going through a breakup while trying to quit smoking. With that alone, we know we’re in the presence of a serious songwriter: thoughtful, intelligent and slightly angsty.
About three songs in and Van Etten trades the Fender for an acoustic and explains, “I was kinda mad when I wrote this song. Jussayin..” Again, she stares into the abyss of the crowd the entire time as the music seems to come out of her of its own accord. One gets the sense that this is what she always does at home on a Wednesday night. There just happens to be a few hundred people watching her at the moment.
Using the traditional rock band instrumentation with a harmonium thrown in for good measure, Van Etten drew the majority of the set-list from Tramp, her release from earlier this year. Towards the end of the set, the accompanists took a break, leaving Van Etten alone with the audience. “They think I talk too much!” she jokes before beginning a guitar riff. As a persona on stage, she’s vulnerable, painfully honest, genuine and egoless. She likes to joke and chat with the crowd, remembers to thank everyone on her touring staff, even the merch guy, and seems approachable and friendly. Although she humbly admitted that her music is not nearly as danceable as her opener (Tennis), the audience members didn’t seem to mind or notice. They were either struck still in what was happening or singing along.
In a live setting, Van Etten rocks louder than listening to her albums alone would imply, while still maintaining a strong sense of intimacy with the audience. Several of her songs are dramatic builds to powerful moments that are captured in the studio recordings, but appear much bigger and louder on stage.
It’s the kind of music to take in alone on a rainy day and the kind of show where you forget that there are other people in the room besides her. Van Etten’s confessional songs are reminiscent of reading journal entries set to a melody while still maintaining songwriting artistry. These songs are obviously that personal, and few artists make their live performances seem such a simple, natural and powerful expression of themselves.