There aren’t many artists who, when a fan sneezes halfway through a heartfelt torch song, the crowd transfixed, can pause to say “Bless you!” into the microphone, and instantly resume where they left off, recapturing the song and its all-enveloping mood. But Sharon Van Etten can.
The 31-year-old Brooklyn indie folk-rock singer-songwriter wrote her latest album, Tramp, released early this year, in response to an abusive boyfriend who told her that she would never get anywhere as a singer. Looking around at this besotted sold-out crowd, how wrong could he have been?
Tramp was produced by Aaron Dessner of the revered indie-rock band The National, while among the guest musicians on the album is Beirut’s Zach Condon. Her steady rise has been aided by Bon Iver covering one of her songs, the smoky, bluesy vocals of which are most comparable to another treasured torch-bearer for emotive rock, Cat Power.
Much of the material on Van Etten’s three albums is inspired by relationships, their ups and (mainly) downs – as the strap line “because I was in love” that introduces her Twitter account and was the title of her 2009 debut album, attests. She brings colour to the depths of emotions with focused intensity, best of all on Epic’s haunting, melancholic “Don’t Do It”, or otherwise lays bare those dramas, as on “Serpents”, when she sings: “You enjoy sucking on dreams/ so I will fall asleep with someone other than you”. Tonight she and her band powerfully transform “I’m Wrong” into the night’s angriest song, finger-picked guitar morphing into the droning post-rock of Mogwai, the sound distorted and bowed aggressively. The song builds from eerie to furious, Van Etten on the floor manipulating guitar pedals, before a dawn breaks and her clear voice rings out.
There may be bitterness running through her songs, but it’s always delivered with the understated grace of her beautiful lilting vocals. These are complemented perfectly by the sultry harmonising of the keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick, adding further depth.
She thanks her crowd sweetly, praises her band members and support bands to the rafters, tells self-deprecating stories of failed romances and kookily tells the crowd that she is known to “freak out” on tour. But whenever she performs, Van Etten is the most accomplished and compelling of all.