Live: Sharon Van Etten Warms A Very Receptive Mercury Lounge

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Luis Paez-Pumar
Sharon Van Etten
Mercury Lounge
Wednesday, January 18

Better than: Standing outside in that unbearable wind.

It's almost a New York City cliche at this point, but it holds up: there are few things better than tucking into a warm venue on a cold night in the city. It creates a sense of longing for more songs, more encores, more seconds enveloped in notes rather than winds. Last night at Mercury Lounge, Sharon Van Etten provided the warmth that the packed crowd of 250 so very badly needed.

One of the better features of Mercury Lounge is that the stage is low enough for the crowd to be almost level with the performers. (The playing field's even more level for those of us who are a bit taller.) This allowed Van Etten to keep a bit of banter going with the crowd, and to flash smiles at various audience memers—light touches that should not be underestimated, especially since she sings with a determined, almost trance-like demeanor. Between songs, she's a populist singer, worried about her self-described clumsiness and her audience's enjoyment. During songs, however? A meteor could crash into the venue and I'd be willing to bet that she finishes.

On this particular Wednesday, roughly three weeks away from the release of her third album Tramp, Van Etten decided that she was going to give the audience a nice surprise: She played Tramp front to back, with no encore and no real breaks. Hearing her ethereal voice swirl around the packed venue as very corporeal cymbals crashed behind her was magnificent, and her backup band was up to the task; tracks swelled in just the right moments and crashed with impunity before building up again, brick by brick. Violin bows made guitar strings sound like thunder, and the wonderful Heather Woods Broderick played keyboards and guitars and bass while also serving as an ideal vocal complement to Van Etten.

Notice that there are dichotomies throughout here: voices diverging against each other, soft and loud melodies, differing personalities. It's all part of the conflict that resides within Sharon Van Etten's live persona, and it's one that comes through more on this new album than before—how does she manage being a seemingly happy person with being an almost brooding singer-songwriter? The answer lies somewhere in her ability to flip a switch repeatedly, going from stoic bandleader to friendly neighbor and back again. There are cracks in this separation, and they provided the moments that most stood out last night. Early on, she busted out an Omnichord; after explaining that she hadn't really gotten used to holding it yet (foreshadowing!), she proceeded to play a gorgeous track with the help of the awkward instrument. Although it wasn't perfect; at one point, it slipped a little, and Van Etten let out a smile that battered against her passionate delivery. This is a good thing, and it shows that the unbelievably talented singer has charisma as well.

Critical bias: I made sure to get there early and stand in that aforementioned cruel wind so I could get a front-row spot.

Overheard: At one point, Van Etten, said "This song was a mistake." This was followed very quickly by the girl behind me saying to her friend, "So was my sister!"

Random notebook dump: If a glass of thankfully empty beer falls near SVE's guitar, does her laugh make a sound?

Setlist:
Warsaw
Give Out
Serpents
Kevin's
Leonard
In Line
All I Can
We Are Fine
Magic Chords
Ask
I'm Wrong
Joke or a Lie

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