Sharon Van Etten
with Jana Hunter
First Avenue, Minneapolis
July 16, 2014
Sharon Van Etten set the tone for her First Avenue show long before she took the stage on Wednesday night. With the release of her exquisite album Are We There, Van Etten had collectively broken all of our hearts with her anguished, deeply revealing new songs, and we came to the club in search of some musical therapy in order to heal our lingering emotional scars.
And that is precisely what we got from the Brooklyn-based songwriter and her talented backing band during their captivating 85-minute set, which included a guest appearance in the encore from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, as if the night wasn't already special enough.
Van Etten exclaimed at the start of the show, "It's been too long, Minneapolis. Thanks for showing up!" And it seemed that her and the band -- Doug Keith on guitars, Heather Woods Broderick on keys/vocals, Megafaun's Brad Cook on bass, and Ben Folds Five's Darren Jessee on drums -- were set on making up for lost time as well as showcasing Van Etten's brilliantly devastating new songs. The set began with the quietly assured lead track of the new album, "Afraid of Nothing," which featured rich harmonies between Van Etten and Broderick, along with the swelling strains of Heather's keys.
It was a bit odd to see Van Etten set her guitar down so frequently during the show, as she occasionally bounced between keys and what appeared to be an omnichord throughout the performance. A smooth, loungey version of "Taking Chances" continued the graceful start to the set, but it was a rousing take on "Tarifa" that really gave the show an early spark, as Van Etten's gritty electric guitar work pushed the number forward.
Van Etten routinely deflected the raw emotions of her songs with jovial stage banter, giving a lighter edge to the performance. "This is about the time of the set where you start to say, 'What the fuck is this shit? Play some old shit,'" she exclaimed. She went on to talk about how "Save Yourself" was the first country song that she ever tried to write, and it caused her to think of a dirty joke. After being prodded by the crowd to share it, Van Etten cautioned us that, "It's sexist against myself. The type of country songs that I write, there would be no 'O' in country." It served as perfectly profane introduction to what is truly a gorgeous number.
Van Etten's vocals have grown strong and resonant through years of touring, and it was her aching voice that led the way on tender versions of "Nothing Will Change" and "Break Me." The adulation from the hushed and respectful audience occasionally boiled over between songs, with shouts of "I love you, Sharon" met with a warm response from Van Etten, "We love you too. Aren't you glad that none of these songs are about you?" Looped vocals provided a ghostly backdrop for a moving rendition of "Don't Do It," which swelled in emotion as it reached its poignant climax.
Van Etten has the rare ability to hold your heart in her hands with each song she sings, while her convivial between-song chatter makes it seem like you've been best friends since grade school. After praising Glam Doll Donuts and admitting that she was riding a big sugar high, Van Etten switched to keys as the group was momentarily reduced to a trio with Broderick and Jessee for a stunning version of "I Love You But I'm Lost." Van Etten playfully described it as "another optimistic ballad," but the song was far more than just another number, as its unguarded emotions elegantly washed over the crowd.
A heartwarming version of "You Know Me Well" kept the emotional level of the show high, even prompting Van Etten to share a warm embrace with Keith after they finished the song, as they both were clearly satisfied with how the rendition turned out. During the band intro, Van Etten asked Cook to share a story with the crowd, prompting him to hilariously respond, "I've never talked in a microphone with this band before." But he shared a quick story about how one of the best shows he ever saw at First Avenue was a Ben Folds Five performance, as he sang the praises of Jessee, who's steady rhythms gave the songs a sprightly back beat throughout the set.
The main set ended with the penetrating and powerful one-two punch to the gut of "Serpents" and "Your Love Is Killing Me." Anyone who has listened to Are We There recognizes that "Your Love Is Killing Me" is the emotional centerpiece of the record, and live it takes on a slow-burning poignancy that makes it even more crushing. The show could have ended there and you wouldn't have heard any complaints from the crowd, but Van Etten and the gang had plenty of surprises still in store.
Van Etten returned for the encore solo to a loud ovation, causing her to joke, "If you make me laugh, I won't be able to sing. Do you know how much your presence here blows my mind?!" She then deviated from the planned set list, perhaps due to some liquid courage. "I am drinking whiskey. It is Bulleit. And it is hitting the spot right now, and that is why I've got the courage to play a cover because usually I feel really weird about it." What followed was an absolutely stunning solo cover of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," guided to the heavens by Van Etten's lovely vocals and deft electric guitar. It was perfect, indeed.
Just when you think that the show couldn't get any better, Van Etten announced, "Our dear friend Justin Vernon is going to join us now. We actually met because of this song." Vernon settled in behind the keyboard as the band eased into the fragile beauty of the Epic classic "Love More," with Van Etten and Vernon's swelling harmonies giving the song a delicate heart. Vernon stuck around to play guitar on the fitting set closer, "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," which Van Etten prefaced by saying, "It's the only song that I have that's kind of funny." But anyone who witnessed this emotional performance wasn't bound to be laughing afterward; they were more than likely looking for a dark corner to have a quick cry in.
Personal Bias: With each successive album, Sharon Van Etten has won even more of my heart. Until PJ Harvey returns to the scene, she is the undisputed queen of my music world.
The Crowd: Filled with plenty of stylish, in-the-know music fans and musicians who recognized that this was a show not to be missed, and respectfully remained silent while the band shared themselves with us.
Overheard in the Crowd: "C'mon, even the band intros have got me choked up."
Notes About the Opener: Lower Dens' Jana Hunter delivered a stirring solo set featuring a strong batch of new songs from the band's forthcoming record. Her lush guitar tones were augmented by pre-recorded beats and backing arrangements that gave the material an Erasure-like electro-pop feel, with Hunter's resonant vocals soaring above the din. It will be sweet to see and hear her full band bring these songs to life, but this was a strong, genuine introduction to the new material.
Afraid of Nothing
Nothing Will Change
Don't Do It
I Love You But I'm Lost
You Know Me Well
Your Love Is Killing Me
-- Encore --
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Love More (with Justin Vernon)
Every Time The Sun Comes Up (with Justin Vernon)