Live: Sharon Van Etten Manages Not To Soil Herself At Bowery Ballroom
Better Than: Another night of "Love More" on repeat
Around 7 o'clock Saturday night, shortly before I had to catch a D train and head to Bowery Ballroom, I admit that I didn't want to go. I'd been excited for this show before that, but right then, as I lay in bed, preparing myself with another spin through Brooklyn folkie Sharon Van Etten's second album, Epic, my mood began to align with the record's, and the idea of stepping outside my apartment -- or even out of my bed -- started to seem like a drag. I managed to do it, though, and I'm glad I did.
The night began with Sebastian Blanck, whose set started with solo, leaves-falling-outside-a-window acoustic tunes, and gradually progressed into two electric, full-band numbers. The War on Drugs, a group heavily indebted to what FM radio defines as "classic rock," followed. One or two people danced; others nodded. I tapped my foot and waited patiently for the headliner.
When Van Etten came out, she made no effort to disguise her state of mind. "I'm shitting my pants right now," she announced, before jumping into an adrenaline-enhanced rendition of "A Crime," speeding through the chorus rather than lingering on it, as she does on Epic. No worries. She quickly settled into a groove with "Peace Signs" and "Save Yourself," the former played with an intensity absent from the small solo show I saw her perform late last year. As one would expect, that set, good in its own way, drew heavily from 2009's Because I Was in Love; Saturday's full backing band allowed her to focus on the recently released Epic instead. Before "Don't Do It," Van Etten told us that this would be her first time using a distortion pedal on her guitar, but the more powerful distortion came when her voice cracked as the song neared its climax, an effect especially startling because she hasn't allowed it on any of her records.
From there, she returned to Because I Was in Love's "Tornado," then moved forward with three new songs: "Tell Me," "Ask," and "All I Can." These compositions continue Epic's move toward full instrumentation, though the lyrics feature the same alternating between first and second person that persists throughout her work. Although the crowd reacted more nonchalantly to these three songs than any of her others, that speaks more to the way Van Etten's music tends to grow on you over time than anything regarding the quality of the new material.
Announcing that "Love More" would be her final song (she did a quick encore, actually, ending with R.E.M.'s "Driver 8," Van Etten was now "trying my best not to cry." Surely a few people in the audience had given up that battle, the most likely suspects being her parents in the balcony, her cousins and sister up front, or her old friends from Tennessee out somewhere in crowd. As she labored through the harmonium part that drives the tune, I wouldn't be surprised if a few strangers felt their eyes getting moist as well. Everyone wanted to sing along, but no one wanted to ruin the moment.
Critical Bias: I once had a conversation with Van Etten about the idiocy of the Tea Party. We were in agreement.
Overheard: Van Etten's cousin harassing her from the crowd.
Random Notebook Dump: More shows should end with R.E.M. covers.
Sharon Van Etten Setlist
Don't Do It
All I Can
Strange Currencies (R.E.M. cover)