After listening to the often harrowing but brilliant Are We There, the new album from Sharon Van Etten, I did not expect to come out of El Rey Theatre after her biggest headline show to date with the word “goofy” stuck in my head. And yet amidst her searing performances of songs from that album, it was her goofiness and relaxed nature that stood out more than anything. Sharon Van Etten has clearly come on leaps and bounds as an entertainer as much a she has as a singer-songwriter.
In that latter category, I said during my review of Are We There that she may be the best this country has produced since Elliott Smith, but those between-song jokes during her set highlighted a crucial difference between the two. With Smith, there was always the sense that the soul-baring songs did nothing to alleviate the demons he was constantly fighting, and tragically, in the end they would be enough for him to take his own life. For Van Etten, even at their most disturbing her songs appear to be a true cathartic release, allowing the artist to poke fun at herself without diminishing the power of her music.
As a result, these songs retained their impact live and, in some cases, landed an even bigger punch. Van Etten has become an outstanding singer, delivering a huge amount of force without resorting to histrionics, and she is backed by a band that has become an intricate part of these songs rather than just people there to hit the notes. The harmonic vocals of Heather Woods Broderick, in particular, are key to the show, helping Van Etten to realize some of her most delicate melodies, particularly on the stripped-down “I Love You But I’m Lost,” which saw the pair left alone on the stage.
There were older reminders of how good Van Etten has been for quite some time, including an emotive “All I Can” during the encore and a punchy version of “Serpents.” But for the most part the songs were drawn from her career best latest, and as I suspected, those songs almost sound designed purely for live performance. I already had plenty of love for the tracks on Are We There, but listening to them being delivered with a hint of live rawness only saw that love expand.
For all of the highlights of the show, the best was saved for the end of the regular set with “Your Love Is Killing Me.” It sounds more and more like the greatest song Van Etten has ever written, and listening to her sing it live was devastating as she increased her vocal intensity with the band’s increasing volume and delivered her lines with an unnerving passion that was hair-raising.
Sharon Van Etten looked anything but goofy at that point, and it was the pinnacle of a show that revealed her to be completely comfortable with the prospect of playing these shows to bigger and bigger audiences. As word spreads of just how special a talent she is, she’ll soon have her chance to do just that.
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