Sharon Van Etten at First Avenue, 8/4/12
Sharon Van Etten on Tramp and her upgraded band
Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater at Cedar Cultural Center, 2/18/12
Sharon Van Etten with Tennis
First Avenue, Minneapolis
August 4, 2012
They liked her. They really, really liked her.
It wasn't too hard to figure out how Sharon Van Etten's visit to the Mainroom went over on Saturday night. In fact, it was probably too easy, the crowd going well out of its way to tell her how they felt--and on several occasions, too. After each song, almost on cue, a voice from the floor called out to the singer:
"Thank you for coming to Minneapolis."
"We love you."
It was a heartfelt gesture, true, but after a while it got a little tacky. After all, Minnesotan or not, a little earnestness can go a long way. Fortunately, however, Van Etten took it all in good humor--and, tellingly, she was genuinely touched by the whole display.
There's something almost off-putting about Van Etten. It's not that there's anything particularly complicated or contradictory about her. Quite the contrary. Sure, she has a beautiful voice, and yeah, she's pretty too, but there's nothing showy about her or the way that she carries herself. What instead seems most unique about Van Etten is how utterly relatable she is. Almost disarmingly so.
Take a song like "I'm Wrong," which came toward the end of the main set and was arguably the highlight of the night. "Tell me I'm right," Van Etten pleaded. "Tell me I'm funny, even when I'm not." It's a simple line, one that might be a throwaway in someone else's hands, but in Van Etten's it takes on human qualities.
When someone says a thing like that--tell me I'm right, tell me I'm funny--it means something else entirely from the words themselves. It's the sort of thing someone says when they feel hurt, or neglected, or unpretty, or whatever else, and just need someone to make them feel special. So it's Van Etten's gift that she's able to convey all those ideas essentially with her voice, which carries with it so much gradation and nuance--so much emotion.
That was all the more true of "I'm Wrong" for its smoldering, ambient arrangement, which built gradually into a swirling throng of guitars and feedback. It was true, too, of hit single "Leonard"--although for more conventional, poppier reasons--while in comparison "Serpents" actually felt a little one-dimensional, as energetic as it was. Maybe Van Etten was onto something when she shrugged afterward, "You do know it's only three chords, right?"
Indeed, throughout the night, Van Etten broke up the tension with her between-song banter, but in its way it was revealing, too. For instance, in introducing "I Fold," she said, "This next song I wrote when I moved back into my parent's basement--which is the coolest thing you can do." She laughed, then added, almost timidly, "It's about how awesome my parents are."
A little self-deprecating, probably a little goofy, and almost definitely relatable for all the 20-somethings in the audience. (Get it?!) Later on, Van Etten even went out of her way to embarrass her (Minnesota-reared) guitarist, Doug Keith, wryly proclaiming that, "He's been dreaming of playing here since he was ten!" Of course, it felt more than a little bit like an older sister teasing her younger brother, but then that was the point.
Yet for all that, the humor was but a counterbalance to the vulnerability of the music, although both sides may well have been necessary. Regardless, it was still true that Van Etten was putting a part of herself out there for everyone to see. And so it was that, when she teared up as she came back onstage for the encore, it didn't feel the least bit contrived.
Nor, for that matter, was it tacky.
Personal Bias: Absolutely no bias. Whatsoever.
The Crowd: A very supportive group, apparently.
Overheard in the crowd: "INTO IT!"
Random Notebook Dump: Tennis were the openers on Saturday night, and they played a solid set. You could almost think of them as a lesser version of Van Etten and her band (some might disagree, for various reasons), but in any event, they made for a good warmup act.
All I Can
Don't Do It