The headliner on Sunday evening at the Greek Theater was Andrew Bird, who put on the kind of eccentric and eclectic set you would expect from the versatile whistling fiddler. Before he played his first note, and before the sun had fully set for the evening over Griffith Park, a young woman took to the stage with three other musicians to quietly go about her business, as she has done all year while slowly accumulating some thoroughly deserved acclaim.
Sharon Van Etten has had a big year. Her third album and first release on Jagjaguwar, Tramp, was released to almost universal sparkling feedback, including a review from myself here on the blog. Repeated listens to that album over the last few months have only confirmed what I suspected, which is that Van Etten is that rare breed of singer-songwriter who can take done-to-death subjects like love and heartbreak and make them sounds fresh, through such devilish tricks as great songwriting, intuitive phrasing, and a voice that is almost uncomfortably sincere.
She has certainly come a long way performance-wise over the last year. When I first saw her supporting The National in September at the cavernous Hollywood Bowl, she seemed understandably intimidated. Although she began her set at the Greek on Sunday by telling herself not to freak out, she needn’t have worried. The Greek Theater is essentially a miniature Bowl, and Sharon Van Etten’s stature has grown considerably since that opening slot 11 months ago.
Opening with “All I Can” was a smart move in this respect. What sounds a little grandiose on record actually becomes an attention-grabbing opener live as it makes its slow stomp towards a climax. The more personal material was delivered with startling clarity and sounded all the more glorious for the connection the audience has been allowed to build with the music over the last few months.
“Leonard” was as gorgeous as expected with its subtle but effective punchline. “Give Out” is as affecting a love song as any in recent memory, and it gets me every time. The harmonies on these tracks are perfectly judged and show Van Etten to be a master of restraint, and her between-song banter revealed a looser side that rounds out the impression of her as the perfect kind of artist, one who takes her music seriously but not herself.
She closed with “Love More,” the accordion-driven ballad from her 2010 album Epic, which is the most compelling proof that she has been on her game for a while. It has just taken the world a little longer to fully realize it. In truth, the fact that she was restricted to a supporting slot (however illustrious) of just over forty minutes suggests that a little further exposure is required.
Fans can be notoriously protective of the likes of Sharon Van Etten when the subject of a bigger audience comes up, and indeed she is the kind of musician you are tempted to keep a secret. That would be doing her a disservice. This was a performance of deeply affecting music, from someone who no longer appears fazed by the limelight, and Sharon Van Etten proved on a pretty big stage that it is where she belongs. Now how about some headline shows for one of the year’s outstanding critical successes?
For more info, visit Sharon Van Etten’s website.