Sharon Van Etten is a very serious songwriter; no one would argue that. Her three albums are narratives of self-aware heartbreak, with a rare glimmer of hope or positivity. Track after track, Van Etten pines over lost love and mistakes made, always with taste. So, naturally, she’s my kind of girl. In person, however, she is very different.
I had the opportunity to see Van Etten on a mild Thursday evening in Chicago at Lincoln Hall, near DePaul University. A clean and high profile venue, Lincoln Hall is for sure one of the most comfortable places to see a show in Chicago. A nice, not too large floor offers great sight lines and even better sound. Opening act Shearwater—not to be mistaken with Stillwater of Almost Famous—successfully mixed noise and psych rock elements with a downhome folk sound, but failed to engage the crowd. We all knew why we were there, and it wasn’t for them.
After minutes of set up and sound checks, Van Etten took the stage with her band, comprised of a second guitarist, drummer and a vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist. Immediately, her grounded charm was imminent as she fumbled her electric guitar, apologizing for not properly preparing first. With the first chords of “Warsaw”—the opener on her fantastic new album Tramp—Van Etten’s demeanor changed. As she shared her ability to “love silently,” her face no longer smiling, but pensive and determined.
The rest of the show was a tale of two Sharons. The talkative, goofy and good-natured Van Etten would engage the crowd and her stoned bandmates directly, always with a disarming smile. The introspective, wounded but proud Van Etten hit every solemn note while rocking on her Fender Jaguar or strumming her worn acoustic. Much of her set culled tracks from Tramp, which sounded spectacularly grunge in a live setting, with all members turning up their distortion. This 90’s influence came most alive during new track “Serpents”, the recorded version of which never reaching this level of heaviness. “Everything changes/I don’t want life to this time.”
Van Etten is a successful live performer because her songs take on new life on stage. Whether it’s the acoustic, harmonic dirge of “Give Out” or the Omnichord featuring “Magic Chords”, Van Etten and band stuck to their guns in the best way. The emotional pinnacle of the night came with the swelling “All I Can”, one of the best songs off Tramp.
The fact is this: Sharon Van Etten is an artist interested in and dedicated to self-expression. This makes her recorded output come off as overly gloomy, because it just so happens her sadness is what she is compelled to express, similar to many other artists of all disciplines. That said, her live performance reveal depth beyond the sadness, and in many ways she is a positive, uplifting and reassuring performer. Her choice to build and maintain a career out of her heartbreak must take its toll. Is she empowered by her expression, ultimately allowing herself to rise above the pain in her heart? Or, does retracing her sad memories keep old wounds fresh and unable to heal? With Sharon Van Etten, it’s probably a mix of both. And, what’s more human than that?
Peter Lillis is a staff writer for Frontier Psychiatrist. Damn, Sam, he loves a woman that rains.