Published Jul 07, 2014There is more to live music than music. It's not enough to just be a solid songwriter if you are to survive all those long, lonely nights on the road. Some call it an X-factor or star power, that thing that makes people sit up, take notice, and remember you long after you've left the stage. While diminutive Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten may not be reinventing the wheel with her folk-influenced indie rock sound, there's clearly something about her live show that separates her from the pack. Rarely, if ever, has a Vancouver audience been so enraptured by a performer that even in a 500-capacity room, it was so quiet one could hear a beer being opened on the other side of the room throughout a set. Sharon Van Etten had us spellbound.
Contrasting the soul-searching nature of her music, Van Etten had an honest and quirky yet demure stage presence, the kind of aw-shucks charm that compelled fans to root for Mickey Mantle over Roger Maris back in 1961. She continually endeared and mocked herself, jokingly forgot what a microphone was and exaggeratedly mimed crying for "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" from the well-represented Are We There in her encore. Early on, Van Etten mentioned that she was feeling a little shitty, but she was in a good place, had a great band, and promised to be much more with it in a few songs, a rant that elicited shouts of adoration and one marriage proposal. She followed through on her paraphrased guarantee immediately with "Save Yourself" from her 2010 album epic, rivalling the polish and emotional resonance of Aimee Mann in her execution.
Van Etten's all-star backing band was with her all the way, with Darren Jessee (Ben Folds Five) on drums, Brad Cook (Megafaun) on bass, Douglas Keith on guitar and Heather Woods Broderick (Efterklang) on keys, tambourine and backup vocals. There was a humorous exchange between Van Etten and Keith during "Tarifa," when the guitarist was left to bounce excitedly in anticipation of the downtempo alt-rock drop while Van Etten teased out the moment. Broderick had a couple of nice exchanges with her as well, notably when they traded the hook for "Nothing Will Change."
Altogether, the band's sound was ever-evolving. Van Etten moved between acoustic and electric guitar, as well as Omnichord and organ, while Broderick filled in the blanks as if she was an extension of Van Etten. Granted, some of the mid-tempo rockers like "Don't Do It" stagnated a bit when they plateaued, but the dynamics in their slow, progressive moments like "Your Love Is Killing Me" calmly and smoothly built up and exploded, drawing the listener in every step of the way. Performing "Consolation Prize" for her encore on solo electric guitar showed that she did not need her band, her voice having matured to folky perfection over the past few years. Still, her performance was greatly enhanced by them.
Near the end of her set, Van Etten introduced her band, thanked her road manager and merch seller, and gave props to the local sound crew, lighting guy and anyone else at the Rickshaw she could remember by name, and vowed to hang out at the merch booth after her set if anyone wanted to meet her. From the confessional, heartfelt nature of her poetry to the sombre, muted instrumentals — and a darkly dramatic sound underpinning narratives so emotional that she sold her own line of tissues at the gig — to her humble banter, it seemed her live show was a form of therapy for her and for her audience. The experience was worth far more than the asking ticket price.