Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Powerfully Adorable: A Review of the Sharon Van Etten Concert

"It's really hard to sustain a note on a full stomach because I'm afraid I'll burp into the microphone," Sharon Van Etten said to a packed house of queer couples, single ladies in flannel button-ups, and groups of middle-aged hipsters at Neptune Theatre Sunday night.

Opening for the petite Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter with a booming, grainy voice was Philadelphia band War on Drugs - four gentlemen with a swarm of echoing synthesizer sounds that, combined with constant blue lights overhead, made the Neptune feel like a fish tank. Adam Granduciel (lead vocals/guitar) and Robbie Bennett (keyboard) sported trendy Jesus-length haircuts, and all four had a great sense of humor. Granduciel began to tease David Hartley (bassist) about his family in Seattle. "You're from around here, right? In Poulsbo?" he asked Hartley. The bassist (along with half the crowd) scoffed at Granduciel's geography skills. War on Drugs played for a good hour in their bizarre, aquatic way before Van Etten finally took the stage.

Apart from her intimidating vocal power, Van Etten is otherwise downright adorable. The 31-year-old giggled and palled around with her band mates and the crowd and, though she's been performing for most of her life, appeared almost nervous on stage. "Like I'm supposed to remember all my songs?" she joked when she forgot the set list three songs into the show. Her guitarist climbed over two amps to whisper the next title into her ear.

Van Etten's good-natured, awkward demeanor was endearing and instantly won over the crowd as she answered the questions folks shouted from the audience. For example:

Random person: "Do you like cats?"
Van Etten: "Cats? I love cats."
Same person: "I love you!"
Van Etten: "I love you, too, beautiful stranger."

At one point, a fan pushed his way to the front and set a flower onstage. Van Etten stopped playing to go pick up the flower and slide the stem through her guitar strings. "This song is now for that guy," she said before continuing with the swooning, mesmerizing voice and gut-wrenching lyrics of her latest album, Tramp.

Van Etten's drummer is the tallest man alive. Even seated, he towered over Van Etten's tiny standing frame. Part way into the set, her lead guitarist pulled out a violin bow and continued to play his guitar without missing a note. But the real treat was the lady sharing the stage with Van Etten, who switched from back-up vocals to guitar to bass to keyboard to the occasional tambourine, and the two fierce female voices took over the audience. Their harmonies swelled and swayed, particularly on songs like "Tornado" and "One Day." Together, they wooed the crowd long into the evening.

(My review also appears online at The Stranger.)

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