Sharon Van Etten at First Avenue, 7/16/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo By Tahiel Jimenez

Sharon Van Etten
with Jana Hunter
First Avenue, Minneapolis
July 16, 2014

Sharon Van Etten set the tone for her First Avenue show long before she took the stage on Wednesday night. With the release of her exquisite album Are We There, Van Etten had collectively broken all of our hearts with her anguished, deeply revealing new songs, and we came to the club in search of some musical therapy in order to heal our lingering emotional scars.

And that is precisely what we got from the Brooklyn-based songwriter and her talented backing band during their captivating 85-minute set, which included a guest appearance in the encore from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, as if the night wasn't already special enough.

Van Etten exclaimed at the start of the show, "It's been too long, Minneapolis. Thanks for showing up!" And it seemed that her and the band -- Doug Keith on guitars, Heather Woods Broderick on keys/vocals, Megafaun's Brad Cook on bass, and Ben Folds Five's Darren Jessee on drums -- were set on making up for lost time as well as showcasing Van Etten's brilliantly devastating new songs. The set began with the quietly assured lead track of the new album, "Afraid of Nothing," which featured rich harmonies between Van Etten and Broderick, along with the swelling strains of Heather's keys.

It was a bit odd to see Van Etten set her guitar down so frequently during the show, as she occasionally bounced between keys and what appeared to be an omnichord throughout the performance. A smooth, loungey version of "Taking Chances" continued the graceful start to the set, but it was a rousing take on "Tarifa" that really gave the show an early spark, as Van Etten's gritty electric guitar work pushed the number forward.

Van Etten routinely deflected the raw emotions of her songs with jovial stage banter, giving a lighter edge to the performance. "This is about the time of the set where you start to say, 'What the fuck is this shit? Play some old shit,'" she exclaimed. She went on to talk about how "Save Yourself" was the first country song that she ever tried to write, and it caused her to think of a dirty joke. After being prodded by the crowd to share it, Van Etten cautioned us that, "It's sexist against myself. The type of country songs that I write, there would be no 'O' in country." It served as perfectly profane introduction to what is truly a gorgeous number.

Photos By Tahiel Jimenez

Van Etten's vocals have grown strong and resonant through years of touring, and it was her aching voice that led the way on tender versions of "Nothing Will Change" and "Break Me." The adulation from the hushed and respectful audience occasionally boiled over between songs, with shouts of "I love you, Sharon" met with a warm response from Van Etten, "We love you too. Aren't you glad that none of these songs are about you?" Looped vocals provided a ghostly backdrop for a moving rendition of "Don't Do It," which swelled in emotion as it reached its poignant climax.

Van Etten has the rare ability to hold your heart in her hands with each song she sings, while her convivial between-song chatter makes it seem like you've been best friends since grade school. After praising Glam Doll Donuts and admitting that she was riding a big sugar high, Van Etten switched to keys as the group was momentarily reduced to a trio with Broderick and Jessee for a stunning version of "I Love You But I'm Lost." Van Etten playfully described it as "another optimistic ballad," but the song was far more than just another number, as its unguarded emotions elegantly washed over the crowd.

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