Even amidst Halloweekend, Hurricane Sandy nerves, and feeling starstruck after seeing Malia Obama in Georgetown last night, I cannot stop thinking about Sharon Van Etten’s performance at the 9:30 Club last Thursday.
For those of you who don’t know SVE, she’s a singer-songwriter, originally from New Jersey, who has released three albums, Because I Was in Love (2009), Epic (2010), and Tramp (2012). The first two of those are pretty clearly about a love gone wrong; she had a terribly abusive boyfriend for a while, and she reacted to the dissolution of their relationship by writing songs. At some point, she also cut her hair short, and frankly, she looked like an angry man herself. I don’t want to speculate too much about SVE’s personal life, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been extremely clinically depressed for at at least some stretch of time during that ordeal. At some point, she was noticed by other musicians, receiving promotional and production help from her friends in The National, later collaborating with a number of other well-established musicians on Tramp and playing alongside them at festivals.
On Thursday night, Sharon Van Etten appeared not as some broken woman, but as a strong, confident, and humble musician who could easily blow you away whether playing alone or with the other three members of her band. She had no fancy set or light show, nothing theatrical – even with only her music to offer, nothing was left to be desired. What’s amazing about SVE’s music is that it doesn’t need the light show or the fancy clothes or the staged interactions between band members. All that it needs are listeners who are willing to experience it for what it is – pure, honest, heartfelt poetry, set to music that matches it mysteriously perfectly.
From the moment Sharon and her band walked on stage and launched into “All I Can,” we in the crowd stood in awe – respectful, but clearly filled with anticipation as the song built. One of my favorite moments was when Sharon sung, “The memory of you/ the love overdue/ to carry a face/ I cannot re-trace.” In her delivery of those words was an energy that was never abandoned throughout the show.
After playing the third track in the set, “Save Yourself,” Sharon finally engaged in some charming conversation with the audience, humble enough to admit that she’d accidentally sung the words “shave yourself” during one of the choruses in the song. She told the audience, “If anyone here works for Gillette, I just want you to know that I use your products…occasionally. So we should talk or something.” It was this kind of self-deprecating humor and banter throughout the night that made Sharon so damn human. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that as a 20-year-old not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman, I look up to Sharon for her ability to put in song what many of us just keep quiet, but to see that she is just a normal person convinced me to stop poking fun at the fact that I like this “angry woman” music so much.
Playing through tracks from her latter two albums, Sharon showed off the best of her repertoire, everything from “Peace Signs” to “Serpents” to a strikingly rich rendition of “I’m Wrong” whose textures captured the musicians to the point that they all ended up on the floor in a frenzy of sound. For me, the highlight of the show came in the middle with Sharon’s solo debut of a new song. I couldn’t find a video from the 9:30 Club, but I found a low-quality version from a Paris show earlier in the month. Yes, it is about a complex heartbreak, but…well, just listen to the song. It’s magical.
Look, I can’t do this show justice through words. I’d hoped that NPR Music would have recorded it so I could share the music, but I saw Bob Boilen from All Songs Considered walking around and not near any recording equipment, so I doubt we’ll get that live recording. All I know is that I left on a high that was, yes, partially from meeting SVE after the show, but mostly from the music and passion and perfection.
See that lady in the stripes? She’s my new musical idol.