Sharon Van Etten @ The Red Palace 4.17.11. (Washington, DC)

Why is this woman smiling?

Over the course of three albums she has spoken of nothing but heartbreak, betrayal and more heartbreak. With a throaty wail that is threatening to burst into a roar at any moment, she has dragged listeners into the very dark places that all of our relationships can/have slipped if things go awry and she typically leaves very little room for even the hint of brightness or positive resolve. To be sure, her songs aren’t happy. So again, why is this woman smiling?

Because she’s Sharon Von Etten and she is f@#@ing fantastic.

Having never seen Van Etten before, the only thing I could have possibly expected was an evening of dour, almost punishing songs that would ultimately (hopefully) provide some sort of catharsis. We’ve all experienced the pain Van Etten is feeling. Their universality is what makes her songs work so well. Consider the words from the song Love More off of her latest album Epic:

tied to my bed
i was younger then
i had nothing to spend but time on you
but it made me love it made me love it made me love more
it made me love it made me love it made me love more

This isn’t new ground she’s covering. Songs about losing love, figuring out love, the aftermath of love…that's what our modern musical canon is based on. No, it’s not new, but when paired with the rawness of Van Etten's delivery it feels more honest, more real than most things that have come before it.

When Sharon Van Etten opened her mouth to sing Sunday night the room stood still. Covering a range of songs from Epic and her previous effort Because I Was In Love, Van Etten brought a new life to her songs that you don’t quite get from the records. Songs like Peace Sign, Don’t Do It and the set closing Love More, became a living representation of the pain that inspired the songs. As the words for each song escaped from Van Etten’s lips, sometimes as an almost guttural growl, they flowed forth into the audience and reminded everyone that sometimes life and relationships can be just plain painful. And then once she had finished sharing her pain with us…she told jokes.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing, the most humanizing thing about Van Etten’s performance Sunday was her sense of humor in the face of such self actualized despair. Seeing her sing happy birthday to an audience member, or a song about Yeungling beer (set to the tune of Jingle Bells) that her and her brother made up as children seemed at first wildly out of character but ultimately made Van Etten, the person, make the most sense. It's easy to believe that Van Etten would simply be lost in constant state of despair based on her songs, but ultimately those songs and those records are only static things Van Etten, just like everyone else, has moved far beyond those bad situations that inspired her work and I think that  this is why Van Etten is able to go so very deep into her personal experiences.

You get past it. You have to.

You get past it, you survive and maybe you do it all again but all of that pain and confusion and loss is a large part of what it is to be alive. Too many artists short change that for easy sentiment, but not Sharon Van Etten. She bravely faces it all, and she does it with a smile.

Check out the video below of Sharon Van Etten and her band performing the track Love More from her album Epic at The Red Palace Sunday night. It will inform you to her talents better than any of my words can.

Also click on any of the images above to see some more shots from the night.