Originally published on KDHX.org
You don’t get the impression that Sharon Van Etten is a tour-de-force talent when you’re talking to her one-on-one. But that’s exactly what she is — an artist with a simple sound of great magnitude.
At first thought, the Luminary seems like a small venue for such an growing artist. But the intimate space only allowed her to shine brighter. Having released four albums in as little as five years, Van Etten has toured relentlessly, at small venues and big festivals, all while maintaining a subtle, lucid charm about her. Her shows are never pompous or dramatically displayed, and she always sits down afterwards to chat with fans, no matter how long it takes. She’s always down to earth, and that’s what keeps her admirers close. She loves playing smaller gigs in more intimate clubs, but she’s about to embark on a world tour in support of her latest LP, “Are We There.”
I first saw her perform for a packed knoll in Union Park, Chicago this year for Pitchfork Fest, playing to nearly four times the amount of people, crammed tight at the edge of the stage. Chicago brewery Goose Island even concocted a special beer in her honor. But Wednesday night in St. Louis presented a paradoxical image — far fewer people gathered to her show, though they were no less enthusiastic. Diehard fans arrived early to snag a great vantage point on the Luminary’s step-style seating.
Tiny Ruins opened their set quietly, playing a mix of songs from their recent album, “Brightly Painted One.” Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, they played their gentle dream folk without the dream. Bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer offered minimal instrumental support, only enough for lead singer Hollie Fullbrook to shine. A lilting crew with a soft-spoken sound, the band hypnotized the Cherokee-neighborhood crowd. However, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene from “Animal House” when Belushi smashes the hippie’s guitar against the wall. Had I been wearing a toga, I might have committed the same act. The music was too soft, too formless with little musicality to chew on. The saving grace was Tiny Ruins’ use of dual-female harmonies that tip-toed over the delicate, Nick Drake-style folk, as though it could be dropped and shattered at your feet and be gone, gone, gone, forever.
Sharon Van Etten and company took the stage shortly thereafter, immediately capturing the attention of the crowd. “Hi, everyone,” she demured. A flannel-clad young man next to me was positively school-boy giddy. “I love her,” he swooned. This was Van Etten’s first time back in St. Louis since playing the Luminary with the War On Drugs, who recently played the Ready Room in St. Louis, and who helped record tracks on her new album.
She smiled at the crowd and donned an old Guild acoustic guitar while her backing musicians took their places and opened with “Afraid of Nothing,” a dusky, yearning ballad straight from the new record. Indeed, the setlist was a near carbon copy of the brand new album, leaving out many songs from her other acclaimed work, emotionally wounding some Van Ettenites in the venue. I would have walked away an ecstatic writer to hear “One Day.”
One of Van Etten’s signatures is the intense use of harmony throughout the majority of a song, as in “Taking Chances” and “Tarifa,” which came second and third in the set. Harmony employed not as trick but trademark. As though it were another member of the band. At times, the effect brings about a sense of spirituality, like hearing a hymn in an unfilled church.
Her black bangs hung low in her eyes as she sang, as if she were hiding from the crowd and peering out from the curtains of her hair. I was reminded of the intense self-reflection of an artist like Patti Smith married with the confessionalism of Kurt Cobain — minus the violence and antagonism. Fan favorites “Save Yourself” and “Break Me” followed, giving the dedicated crowd even more reason to edge closer to the small stage.
The band closed with “Your Love Is Killing Me,” which has to be one of the most gut-wrenching titles ever, with lyrics designed to break your heart, if not other body parts. “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you,” she sang. “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” The feeling was one of deep divulgence, a woman baring her soul for the unrequited love of another. The mood couldn’t be more solemn and transfixed, ever deepening the spiritual bond between song and listener, and ultimately bringing the Church of Van Etten to a close.
She returned for her encore to play “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” a lush, heart-throbbing anchor of self-doubt and uncertainty. “People say I’m a one-hit wonder/But what happens when I have two?” she crooned. Oh Sharon, you’re going to have a lot more than that. Hallelujah.