Music

‘These Songs Aren’t Exactly Veiled’: Sharon Van Etten Gets Raw at Warsaw

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Back when she was bellowing songs from 2010’s epic and sipping wine out of a coffee mug, someone called out a request from Sharon Van Etten’s nimble acoustic-driven first album during one of her sets, and she blushed at the recognition: “No one knows about that,” she dismissed.

Over four years later, Van Etten is kicking off another world tour in support of 2014’s Are We There with back-to-back sold-out shows in New York, and everyone at Warsaw in Greenpoint last night knew the songs from the record and those that came before. In May, when we asked her about the upcoming tour, Van Etten likened the experience to therapy: “The depth behind each song is something I’m going to be exploring every night.”

In some ways, watching her perform last night was like sitting in on her therapy session — that is, if therapy included a four-piece rock band and blinding spotlights in the ballroom of a venue whose tagline is “where pierogies meet punk.”

Jokes aside, the set was a journey of swelling guitars and layered harmonies mirroring their lyrical counterparts. On “Break Me,” she struck the Omnichord’s keys reproachfully, her head bobbing with the lighthearted snark of a Z-snap as she sang “He can break me” like it was a challenge. But with slow-stomper “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” Van Etten was having fun. Crooning the word “emotions,” she grabbed her face, Home Alone–style, in self-mockery. When someone in the crowd yelled, “I love you!” she coyly countered, “But you don’t even know me,” before conceding, “Well, maybe you do…these songs aren’t exactly veiled.”

Such self-deprecating humor helped us endure the more vulnerable places she escorted us during the set. Letting go of her Fender Jaguar like it was too much to bear, Van Etten sneered, “You love me as you torture me.” She seemed to wake from a trance as she snarled the last line, and, realizing she wasn’t alone, fumbled for a joke about the Van Halen–style T-shirts at her merch booth: “I’m gonna sell them till I get sued!” she dared, dissolving the emotional charge she and her bandmates had built up around them with a wall of sound.

The setlist maintained a great ratio of old to new to non-proprietary, and the in-studio immediacy translated well onstage. Certainly her sound has expanded each album, and her self-assuredness has developed almost like a callus. Yet, returning for the encore, Van Etten seemed nervous that the crowd maybe no longer wanted it. “Sorry about…myself,” she said, before asking if we were all right. Beating the heart of the harmonium with one hand, eyes glassy, she reopened her psychic wounds onstage. “Love More” was one of her many tunes infused with that kind of sorrow you don’t even know you contain until you’re kneeling on the floor of your shower under the sheer weight of it. Watching her sing songs so intensely private with such poise was an emotional bloodletting. Maybe this was her therapy — but it was ours, too.

Setlist, 2/18/15 at Warsaw:
Taking Chances
Leonard
Save Yourself
Break Me
Tarifa
Nothing Will Change
Magic Chords
All Over Again
I Don’t Want to Let You Down
Your Love Is Killing Me
Every Time the Sun Comes Up

Encore:
Love More
Museum of Flight (Damien Jurado cover)
Serpents

See also:
The Hard-Won Opus: Are We There Glimpses at Sharon Van Etten’s Growing Pains
John Cale on Sharon Van Etten: “That Pretty Thing Isn’t All Sweet”
Sharon Van Etten, Getting Personal