Sharon Van Etten With Tiny Ruins Kessler Theater, Dallas Friday, October 17, 2014
There are shows that are a joy because they celebrate the music; the recent War on Drugs show is a great recent example. And there are shows that are a joy because of what you learn about the artist. Friday's performance by Sharon Van Etten and her band at the Kessler Theater was just such a show. Van Etten revealed herself to be a relaxed, engaging and upbeat personality.
All of which was an enormous relief to me. Her voice is exquisite. Her lyrics are moving. Yet so unrelentingly mournful are her songs that I can't listen to more than three of them in a row without having to tamp down the urge to call a suicide prevention line.
Van Etten and band took the stage to a very warm greeting from the Kessler audience. Parking a glass of red wine on an amplifier and strapping on her Guild acoustic, the band launched into "Afraid of Nothing," the opening song of Are We There. The album is a collection of songs the artist has explained in interviews to be about having to make the choice between her musical career or a relationship. A respectful hush, maintained throughout the performance, came over the crowd, and from Van Etten's petite body came that amazing voice.
With a power and clarity that evokes Rufus Wainwright or Jeff Buckley, Van Etten effortlessly manipulates dynamics and range masterfully. At the same time, she has the sultriness of Hope Sandoval. Captivating and joyful to watch, her depressing subject matter is transformed into the perfect platform for her singing.
With an easy banter with the audience and with her band, Van Etten was clearly in her element in the intimate confines of the Kessler. (She's from New Jersey, and at one point broke into the classic Carmella Soprano Jersey accent when joking with the audience, sipping from her wine glass.) The set began with a trio of songs from Are We There, with Van Etten moving between guitar, sampler and keyboard.
She has been touring with this band for some time now, and recorded Are We There with them. The result is a sense of musical cohesion, such as the great harmonies contributed by keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick. Guitarist Doug Keith was fluid yet nicely understated. And it was great to see the always-excellent bassist Brad Cook and drummer Zeke Hutchins of the band Megafaun, even in the supporting roles they are serving in this band.
After the well-received inclusion of "Save Yourself" from Van Etten's first full release, 2010's Epic, there was a huddle on stage to discuss a technical issue affecting gear on the left side of the stage. While I couldn't discern what this issue was, Van Etten took deviation from the prepared set list. With a cheery reassurance, "Don't worry, we've got SO many songs," she sang "I Don't Want To," a song that didn't make it onto Are We There. She explained it to be one of her mom's favorites, and as a result will no doubt be released some time. "Don't Do It," another song from Epic was a crowd favorite later in the set. Oddly, it seemed like the set excluded material from 2012's release Tramp in favor of a couple of unreleased songs.
The set ended predictably with the tour de force "Your Love Is Killing Me." The song explodes on the album, and the crescendo was recreated effectively on stage. After a short break Van Etten and band returned for a three-song encore, ending with Are We There's closing song "Everytime the Sun Comes Up." Introducing it as "just a song of silly words," she invited everyone to come say hi in the theater lobby after the show.
And come they did. I watch as she worked through a patient line of at least 40 fans, smiling, posing for pictures and giving autographs. She left the lasting impression of a consummate professional who appreciates her audience -- and, moreover, who has no regrets about choosing her musical career.
Opening the evening was Tiny Ruins, from Aukland. The band is a trio led by singer/guitarist Hollie Fullbrook, who has a playing style mildly reminiscent of Laura Marling. The short set was pleasant, but ultimately served to underscore what a charismatic performer the evening's headliner was.