Seeing an artist play the same venue three times over their career doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t grown a wider audience. Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten is too crowd engaged, too intimate of an artist to thrive in a larger venue like the Fillmore or the Fox. Van Etten’s history at the Independent includes supporting Junip in 2010 and The War on Drugs in 2012, and now two sold out nights headlining for an adoring crowd in celebration of the fourth record she’s put out, Are We There.
Last night, Van Etten and her band started powerfully with the opener to Are We There, “Afraid of Nothing.” Though past records allow you to commiserate and wallow in Van Etten’s heartbreak like it’s your own, the fourth LP may be turning over a new leaf in Sharon’s book of romance. She is no longer distraught over past love or remorseful; she knows what she wants and how she feels, and she will grip that feeling with both hands. With a resonating line like “You throw me a lame ‘wait shit out’ / you’re a little late / I need you to be afraid of nothing” — it’s hard not to take that as an overarching message for the record.
Sharon Van Etten performs with a truly exceptional bunch, who lucky for her, are dedicated members of her band and don’t pursue their solo careers too ambitiously. This includes Doug Keith, Sharon’s partner in harmony Heather Woods Broderick (Horse Feathers, Efterklang), and Megafaun’s Brad Cook and Zeke Hutchins. Every member shines throughout the set, all complimenting Van Etten in different ways. Broderick is a true match for Van Etten on a vocal level; their harmonies during the evening ranged from shouting matches (“Serpents”) to the purely haunting. Broderick recorded a vocal loop at the start of “Don’t Do It” to make for an ethereal, cathedral-esque Julianna Barwick-style effect throughout the song, which builds and crashes over and over in the most immaculate way. When they got to playing “Serpents,” the song cracked open like a blaring siren as Keith demonstrated an ebow on his guitar.
Van Etten’s ability to lead her band into moments of intensity is seriously unparalleled by anyone else in her periphery. I’ve long struggled to turn people on to Van Etten’s music simply by recommending her albums (I myself was invited out to see her live with no context, back in 2010). Though I found this perplexing over the years, after last night I have finally come up with an explanation as to why it’s the case. Live renditions give Van Etten’s songs so much more depth; they are highly personal, dark and haunting, whereas something about the overall production of Are We There falls a little flat. It takes seeing her live to feel the true sensuality, poetry and wonder that is her voice and her onstage energy, and it brought life to the newer songs in a way I wouldn’t expect many to feel just by listening to the record. Another explanation is that Van Etten has a magical touch, and is in pure command of the mood of her shows.
A further onstage skill Van Etten is known for is her sense of humor and connection to her audience. She will make you laugh, but not in a desperate sort of way. There are so many highlights from last night’s commentary, I wish I could remember them all. At one point, she was offering the set list to whomever would throw weed on stage; she answered questions and engaged in conversation about whatever the audience wanted to talk about, giggling in a charming boyish tone of voice when making jokes. She shamelessly plugged her merch items, such as tissues with her face on them or an umbrella with “Are We There” silk-screened on the side. She pushed the comedic banter to a new level last night, so much so that it seemed impossible to shake and go back into a serious song, but somehow, she did it. It even got to a point where the band took part in the fun and Keith (dubbed ‘pretty boy’ by an audience member and will have to deal with that nickname for the rest of tour) had Van Etten unable to conceal her laughter during a few of the songs.
I never had the notion that Van Etten’s humor translated into her music all that much, until last night I heard her sing, “people say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two / I washed your dishes but I shit in your bathroom” from “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” and I couldn’t help but laugh. Her wit comes out in her songwriting too, it seems; she introduced this song during her encore as “the only one she’d ever written stoned while in the studio.”
Jana Hunter was the show opener, a friend of Van Etten’s and contributing musician on Are We There. To many’s delight, Hunter brought an entirely fresh set list of unreleased material soon to be credited to her ongoing band/project, Lower Dens. Working with a laptop and on a stool, it felt like a private viewing of new demos. Hunter turned to synths and mid-tempos for help, sending sound waves of super-reverbed guitar over them. I imagine that these stripped down tracks could very well morph into a more “Lower Dens” style of doing things, layering the bass player’s low, creepy voice under Jana’s. She did a crowd pleasing cover of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater” which felt all too appropriate, in that both she and Sharon are such dominating musical personalities to be on tour together. I’m looking forward to studio versions to get a better idea of what Lower Dens’ third LP might sound like, because last night just felt a little too raw.