It’s the first night of her tour with Damien Jurado, and Sharon Van Etten wants to make it a memorable one. “Are we all gonna go out dancing after this? I’ve got some Elaine Benes moves.” Van Etten isn’t a dance artist, to put it mildly, and if her Seinfeld-ian reference is accurate, we know why. She opts for a sedate opening with minimal lights, allowing alto harmonies to shine. Indie career-maker Bob Boilen is in attendance, alongside a surprisingly large gay population. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Jurado brought out the sensitive crowd for his guy-on-a-chair-with-a-guitar performance, and serves as an appropriate warm-up act for Ms. Van Etten’s cute as hell expressiveness. To see her is to want to hold her tight and protect her from the world’s legion of assholes, one or two of whom she’s clearly encountered. There’s a sense that she might be the nicest artist this side of the border (Dan Mangan, of course, is Nice, Nice, Very Nice) but there’s a not-so-latent darkness as well. Hers is an exposed vulnerability, in that vein Liz Phair tapped with Exile in Guyville, but with hints of Throwing Muses and P.J. Harvey present, particularly in her songs in three time. There’s a lot of food for thought. Food with a sweeter aftertaste than Phair’s incredible rawness, but presented just as nakedly.
The significant nudity in her newly unveiled video, for “Magic Chords” is a subject her mom doesn’t want to discuss. The daughter wants to make sure you know that in it she’s “fully clothed, though.” Which she is, if you don’t count the absence of some commonly worn undergarments. As her mother’s daughter acknowledges the grey areas of life, her sweetness shines through a slightly unsettling worldliness in a way that mimics the acknowledgement of a parent that their daughter’s innocence is gone forever.
She cradles her omnichord — basically an electronic auto harp — like a baby. There’s a tenderness. There’s a softness. And, there’s the symbolic pitch of synthetic sound. She mostly alternates between acoustic and electric guitar, the band backing her perfectly innocuously and keys playing a larger role in the live show than you might expect from the recordings. There’s no electric bass other than the essential thumping brought to bear on “Serpents.” Adding that powerful bottom end to more songs may be something to consider adding in future tours, but it isn’t a pronounced absence in the here and now.
The suburban girl sings about moving to the city. She sings about that excitement and love and electricity we universally want to feel, particularly during our coming of age. That breath on your neck. That whisper in your ear. That moment where you know that life is…happening. It’s a series of hauntingly beautiful moments at that haunting time of the year.
The band decides to rock out a bit as the set ends with a controlled version of a Sonic Youth jam. They bring out the bow and drumstick for liberal application to the Fender Jaguar. Our troubadour descends to the floor and works the pedals. She’s full of life, and knows about plumbing the depths of life’s emotional gutter. She dedicates the encore to the parents she’s seen at four of her shows with their offspring; it’s the one she usually dedicates to her parents. She owns the moment, owns the spotlight, and ultimately there’s no doubt — someone’s daughter is all grown up.