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.