Sharon Van Etten
By Eric Sams | 28 April 2011
We should begin, I guess, by getting a few things out of the way. First, you’re going to be hearing a lot more out of Little Scream. The trio that blew noisily through SXSW is one of those acts who seem to always be sharing the stage with a sense of their own limitless possibility. The roving, incisive art rock they’re playing now is not only a present accomplishment, but also a clearly-outlined harbinger of what this band might be about to do. For the most part though, these are musings for another time. For now, suffice it to say that Laurel Sprengelmeyer’s view of music is, uh, big.
The next thing we should get out of the way is possibly more important but certainly much less relevant. Sharon Van Etten, with her oversized button-up shirt and pale visage gracefully framed by chin-length raven hair, plays the diffident indie-folk goddess role pitch perfectly. Being an extremely passive fan of, well, just about everything, I had never bothered to find out what Sharon Van Etten looked like. But I’m a passive fan, as distinct from a half-hearted fan, mind you. I’ve spun epic (2010) frequently enough that even my half-hearted—as distinct from passive—fiancee can sing nearly every word. I have loved this woman’s music, and watching her shoulder through the midnight blue curtain, stride to the mic, and dive into the opening riff of “A Crime” without pause set off a chain of tiny devastations in my heart.
Not much of that has anything to do with anything. So here’s something that does: the show was at a venue called the Satellite, which, being a fairly new Angeleno, I’ve been told used to be indie-hub Spaceland. Under either name it is a low-slung and venerable hangout tucked into the folds of Silverlake. It’s a mid-sized space, dimly lit and fairly typical with a long bar looking out over the gallery. The first opener, Ivan & Alyosha, were a polished yet rootsy brand of likeable, all sturdy song craft, cardigan sweaters, and hand-claps. They reinforced that the night was not a gamble, there were very few unknowns, and quality craftsmanship was a known quantity.
There was a healthy crowd by the time Sharon took the stage, but ultra-hip LA greeted her as I have witnessed ultra-hip LA greet nearly all musicians: coldly. I’ll admit that this attitude perplexes me. I mean, presumably the Satellite played host to a room full of people who had actively sought out and purchased tickets to this show. And it’s not like Sharon Van Etten is the sort of act that encourages hype rubber-necking or skeptical scenesters in attendance simply because no better band was playing locally. The SVE fan base is a fairly grass-roots collective. All of which leads to the conclusion that the people who were there that night were there because they wanted to be there, and that they wanted to be there specifically to see Sharon Van Etten. So what’s with all the dour, disaffected mugs? Why does a community so self-professedly artistic refuse to actively engage with the artistic medium of live music? Like I said, perplexed.
And I’m not alone. The lack of enthusiasm understandably caused Van Etten to lean a litter further into her girlish onstage persona, keeping her inter-song banter short and cute, preferring not to pose too many questions to an audience prone to answer her, if at all, with quiet, aloof head nods. Since the release of Because I Was In Love (2009) her rise has been rapid and steep, and her fanbase displays an admirable devotion. She probably hasn’t played too many rooms this lukewarm in the past few years, and the indifference seemed to shrink her a little.
But Sharon Van Etten’s voice, like her melodies, is bone strong and a little pugnacious. That voice doesn’t run from a fight, and when it steels itself around the lyrics of a song like “Don’t Do It” it fairly demands attention, even intimacy. She asked for a request and was flattered to find that the requested song was a little-known ballad from the days when she was self-releasing material she’d penned in her parents’ basement. “How’d you know that song?” she asked, flashing an instant of “maybe-these-people-give-a-shit-after-all” confidence. And by the end of the night that voice and those lyrics had, perhaps inevitably, wrestled the crowd of the Satellite out of its torpor.
The silence that greeted the set’s closer, the graceful and chill-inducing “Love More” wasn’t the silence of lethargy, it was something more akin to a comfortable awe.