The majority of Sharon Van Etten‘s musical catalogue thus far has seen her playing the role of the wounded woman — the female character who has been strengthened by the ache of a broken heart. I won’t say I expected Van Etten to be like that on stage when I saw her for the first time live two years ago in Chicago. But what I didn’t expect was the joking, friendly and adorably awkward demeanor that I’ve now witnessed three times in various concert settings. But truthfully, it makes the pain expressed in her music seem more genuine, like she’s transporting herself to those difficult times within the performance of each song. It makes her a joy to witness live.
On Valentine’s Day last week, I saw Van Etten at the Wexner Center for the Arts, a venue that keeps things simple and where the sound quality always seems to be top notch. I wondered what the songs from Van Etten’s recently released album Tramp would sound like live, and I left with a greater appreciation for the 12 songs that make up the record. The lineup for her backing band has changed since I saw her a year ago in Columbus. Zeke Hutchins on drums and Doug Keith on bass were both excellent, and the addition of multi-instrumentalist and supporting vocalist Heather Woods Broderick gave the songs a lovely new dimension.
The roughly 60-minute set began with “Warsaw,” the opening track from Tramp, and it was followed by the new-ish single “Serpents.” Before delivering a knockout performance of Tramp‘s “Give Out,” Van Etten delivered what I found to be a surprising fact: the song is about her current boyfriend. After listening to the lyrics live, I can see how I might’ve missed the silver lining when hearing it on record. Another tidbit: Van Etten composed the song “Kevin’s” while simultaneously quitting smoking and getting over a breakup. Talk about a double whammy. But that aside led to one of my favorite lines of the night.
“I wrote it at a guy named Kevin’s house… because I’m really creative,” Van Etten said, chuckling afterward. It’s the kind of self-deprecating humor and goofiness that makes it hard not to fall for her live performance.
She stuck mostly to the new material, though older cuts “Peace Sign” and “Don’t Do It” sounded wonderful as well. Half of Van Etten’s two-song encore was the b-side “Life of His Own,” an acoustic strummer about, as Van Etten put it “being an independent woman,” after which she laughed and said through further giggling “I’m really not sure why that’s funny.”
It might be the kind of crowds that attend concerts at the Wexner Center, or it could be that Van Etten ropes you in with the strength of her voice, but the crowd was attentive and polite throughout, and seemed to be as enamored as I was with the performance. The songs really rocked in all the right places, a credit to fleshing things out with a full band. Van Etten wrapped up the night with “Love More,” her only time spent at the harmonium all night.
Shearwater‘s performance as the opener must be mentioned, and raved about. The band’s new record was released on Valentine’s Day as well, and the songs from that album, Animal Joy, sounded so amazing that I couldn’t help but sway and bounce around with the excellent percussion and guitar licks. What is most impressive about Shearwater is the composition of their songs: the band has released some instrumental tracks, and one gets the impression that the music behind lead singer/guitarist Jonathan Meiburg’s powerful voice would be just as mind-blowing without vocals. But the pieces fit together nicely for the entire 45-minute set, and I left wanting to see Shearwater live again as soon as possible.
Van Etten and Shearwater will be touring together through the end of February, so if you have a chance you should check them out. You won’t be disappointed.