Sharon Van Etten was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine in a piece that took stock of her new neighborhood in Brooklyn and its “oddly charming florist/speakeasy.” The article is accompanied online by a video of her performing in said florist/speakeasy. Ms. Van Etten sings while gazing at the floor, the ceiling, and occasionally the camera or her backup singer, cracking a slight smile as she does. It’s a spare and intimate portrait of her music, the appeal of which is its honesty. Ms. Van Etten’s music embodies transience, heartbreak, and, ultimately, strength. When she sings, “I’m alright,” you’re not inclined to believe her, until she grins at the end of the song.
I first saw Ms. Van Etten perform nearly four years ago at a house show. I had never heard of her, and there were perhaps twenty people spread across a few couches and the floor listening her perform solo in the thick of July. The experience was unforgettable. I was smitten, and I talked about her to anyone who would listen for weeks following. Ms. Van Etten’s music is confessional and self-healing in a way that inspires tremendous affinity in her fans. One comes away from her music feeling as though she’s revealed a tremendous amount of herself. It’s easy to imagine yourself her confidant, her records passed to you personally. Seeing her perform solo satisfies the urge to feel close to her, to believe in the unique intimacy her, her music, and yourself.
Ms. Van Etten’s popularity has grown tremendously, each of her numerous returns to DC drawing steadily larger crowds. Since her 2010 release Epic she has recorded and performed with a backing band, pushing the core of her sound away from hushed acoustics and toward the bigger stages she now occupies. At her sold-out Saturday night show at the Black Cat she appeared as a full four-piece band and played most of her newest record Tramp, with a few selections from Epic. Gone were the elegiac and vulnerable bedroom songs, but her performance felt hardly less endearing, barely less intimate for heighted volume and crowded room.
The crowd was largely respectful, and the arrangements of the songs understated yet vital. Ms. Van Etten is a confident if slightly self-abashed performer. She is self possessed but not other-focused; as she sings she seems to abstract herself from the stage, and her occasional banter is light hearted and charming but never slick. Her backup singer, Heather Woods Broderick, sang perfect harmonies that lent the music grace and poise, deftly complimenting Ms. Van Etten’s dark tremor. The strength of her music lies in the power of her voice to express the complexity of her own feelings, and her performance was more than anything a testament to the beauty of the human voice.