By the time headliner Sharon Van Etten takes the stage the room is full, though the temperature still brisk. In the midst of a long stint away from her Brooklyn home, with a post-SXSW rasp to her voice, she greets the audience:
“Hello? Wait, that sounded like a question. Hello!”
Her stammer continues throughout the set comprised primarily of songs off her latest album, Epic, with a few of her older ballads mixed in.
Her songs strike an ideal balance between beauty and severity, so you would never expect her to take the stage with such candid banter. Wearing tattered Levis and a stylish blouse, she mocks her wardrobe, “Urban Outfitters and H&M…disposable clothing but very comfortable.” And she doesn’t appear to be donning a cute, stammering act because she even confesses to be slyly burping to the side of the microphone mid-song. “One of the best ideas I had was to have a burger before the show, and a milk shake.”
After singing “Peace Signs” off her new album, she shares that many think she’s really singing “pizza.” “I’m waiting for Weird Al to do a version, take it over," she says.
But when she sings, girl next-door Sharon gives way to heartbroken, emotive Sharon. The striped tattoo on her forearm bounces as she strums her bright red guitar and she cranes her long neck toward the microphone when she wails. She stares out at the audience and up to the ceiling with a look of absence that might just be concentration.
Sharon got her start opening for TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone. “She’s been silencing rooms in drunken bars for years. She’s very arresting,” he said of her on NPR. She sure is. While singing “Heart in the Ground” off her first album, Because I was In Love, a cough from the back of the crowd is audible.
Though many people of prodigal talent have previously explored the singer-songwriter section of rock, Sharon Van Etten’s songs cut through the air with incisive freshness. She’s proof that the Paul McCartneys and Patti Smiths of the world have not exhausted the genre.