Sharon Van Etten is not a diva. Walking on stage at the Bluebird last night, as unassumingly as if she were in the grocery store produce aisle, Van Etten appeared confident and casual. There was no pretense about her or her band, a four-piece that featured two multi-instrumentalists and a drummer. The singer's presence was totally unremarkable. This all changed soon after, though. Strumming a Fender Jazzmaster and accompanied by a harmonium, Van Etten let out a husky wail that soon silenced an otherwise chatty crowd.
This set the rest of the evening's tone, which had, up to that point, been a primarily rockish affair. Philadelphia natives the War on Drugs played earlier, performing mostly songs from 2011's acclaimed Slave Ambient. Compared to Van Etten's set, the War on Drugs could have hardly been more dynamically different. The act's songs were mid-tempo road trip anthems, punctuated by singer Adam Granduciel's strained shouts into the mike. This was an exercise in layered electric buzzes and melodies, with songs ending and beginning with hardly a chance for the audience to catch its breath.
Van Etten and her band took a more nuanced, cautious approach. The set, like the songs from 2012's Tramp, focused more on emphasizing gaps than filling them. When there were bits of silence in the song's hooks, the impact was immense. This is not music that is cast off easily or crafted at the last minute in the studio. Van Etten sounds like someone who is methodical as an accountant regarding her songwriting.
Though stylistically different, Van Etten's songs are reminiscent of those of Andrew Bird's on Mysterious Production of Eggs, an album that took years to produce and features nonlinear song structures. Like Bird, Van Etten is unafraid to write music that eschews the standard verse-chorus-verse constructions of, oh, the past fifty years of pop music. Nonetheless, the songs are still pop songs, however unconventional.
Van Etten's set last night appealed to the kind of literate, 4,000-songs-on-the-iPod music fans that seem to follow her and similar artists/associates (see: Wye Oak, The National). Yet there were moments of levity between songs, such as when Van Etten told her brother (who was in the crowd) how much she loved him, or when she complained about how fat the band was becoming from sitting in a tour bus all day. There was also the moment when a fan shouted she should move to Denver, to which she responded, "Maybe one day, when I'm ready to settle down. I'm too much of a mess right now."
Personal Bias: I was initially about 1,000 percent more excited about seeing The War on Drugs play than Sharon Van Etten.
Random Detail: Who, aside from Rock Santorum, wears a sweater vest in public? Sharon Van Etten's drummer, apparently.
By the Way: Denver is infamous for audiences chatting through shows. Next time you want to announce your Facebook status to a crowd of strangers, take it outside. For real.
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