Sharon Van Etten has always presented a fascinating musical dichotomy – the effervescent and engaging performer and the incredibly dark material she often sings about. Things don’t just go wrong in her songs, they careen off a cliff at top speed. Men enjoy “sucking on dreams” and “garaging girls,” women implore men to “do your worst if you can.”
Yet on stage, she frequently smiles, engages the audience with charmingly low-key chit-chat, and puts her lustrous vocals front and center. Her Winona Ryder-meets-Tina Fey looks belie the dark nature of her songs. The two halves make for a wonderful whole in her live performances, as was the case in her terrific show last Thursday night at the 9:30 Club.
Sticking mostly to material off her latest record, Tramp, Van Etten offered a fantastic set of 14 songs, beginning with the slow, lilting “We Are Fine.” Switching from acoustic to electric guitars (which she did often) the band then offered a rousing version of “Warsaw,” Tramp’s leadoff track. Though backed by only three musicians, Van Etten managed to create a much bigger sound, but not one that overshadowed her vocals. She made a note that she’s had the same band for a while, and it shows; they segued perfectly from the noise-pop of “Warsaw” into countrified “Save Yourself” from 2010’s Epic. A vocal gaffe led to her amusing admission that she’d actually sang “shave yourself,” and noted the song was available to razor companies for the right price.
Another amusing story came when she told the story of watching the recent video for “Magic Chords” with her mother, during which mom complained that the younger Van Etten’s nipples were visible. (She failed to note that in the video in question she’s surrounded by what appear to be floating corpses.) Considering the dark nature of the song and the repetition of the phrase “you’ve got to lose,” the funny story was a great contrast, as was Van Etten playing the song on an Omnichord, a small electronic (and laughably 80s-looking) autoharp. Van Etten also played a mean harmonium at one point, illustrating how far her musical talent stretches.
Van Etten played one new as-yet untitled song about an abusive relationship that may have been the bleakest song of the night (and that’s saying something). “I see you like it when my mind becomes diseased,” she lamented as she stood alone on stage with her Fender Jazzmaster. A fairly recent convert to electric guitar, she noted that “Serpents,” the first single on Tramp, was the first song she’d ever written on electric guitar.
After ending her regular set Van Etten returned for two songs; “One Day” was dedicated to a dad in the audience who had brought his daughter to her fourth Van Etten show (“I love it when dads bring the kids,” Van Etten noted) and played the harmonium flawlessly on “Love More.”
Opener Damien Jurado offered up a batch of solo acoustic songs, including many from his recent (and stellar) album Maraqopa. “Working Titles,” with its line “What’s it like for you in Washington?” was especially well-received, as was the B-side, “Let Us All In,” which saw Jurado unplug his guitar, eschew the microphone, and simply stand on the edge of the stage and lead a sing-a-long.
Jurado’s quiet singing calls to mind Mark Kozelek minus the pomposity. His surreal, touching stories in songs like “Ohio” and “Rachel and Cali” (with its stellar closing line “a friend is only a love you cannot commit to”) were the perfect introduction to Van Etten’s more introspective and dark lyrics.