TVD Live: Sharon Van Etten at the Beachland Ballroom, 6/20

PHOTOS: JARED PERRY | When approaching an artist like Sharon Van Etten, there is an interesting paradox in play. On one hand you can’t ignore the subject matter that shows up on her records. Heartbreak. Pain. Illness. Mental struggles.

On the other, why should we pay such close attention to these themes? Sure, the subjects of the songs seem deeply personal to the artist and provide context for the art, but isn’t good songwriting just good songwriting? Just because a song is personal, as opposed to fabricated stories, doesn’t automatically give it credibility as more “authentic” or any bullshit like that.

While most of what I’ve read about Van Etten’s recorded output is about how melancholy the songs are, I have a different take. I find her work to be truly life affirming. While not minimizing what she has gone through, I think it’s fair to boil it all down to “shit happens.” This is fucking life and I think we’ve all either been through this stuff or know someone who has. I don’t think the heartbreak on her records is the story at all—it’s how it’s presented and packaged.

Her songcraft is top shelf, particularly her last two records—Tramp and Are We There—are career-making works. The writing is stripped bare of unnecessary flourishes and hits you like a truck. Her ability as a songwriter has placed her into some of my favorites in the last 20 years. (Editor’s note: for those wondering, in no particular order—John Darnielle, Fiona Apple, Jason Molina, Mark Kozelek.)

This brings me to Van Etten’s live set at the Beachland Ballroom, because she strikes me as one of the most real performers I’ve ever seen. There were no walls, no bullshit.

The presentation of her work in the live setting is seriously flawless. Van Etten’s voice is jaw-droppingly beautiful and what you get live is exactly what’s on the record. Her backing band is fantastic and in my notes from the show I just kept writing words like “lush,” “textured,” “layered,” and “warm.”

For example, the song “Break Me” is an intense windstorm on the record. Performed live? It’s at a whole new level. Same goes for other standouts from her set like “Serpents,” “I Love You But I’m Lost,” and “You Know Me Well.” It’s just powerful stuff that you need to see.

Beyond the music, Van Etten just seems like an awesome person. Her interactions with the crowd were fun and personable, making you feel like this was something special between us and the artist. I can speak from experience; she commented on my incessant coughing between songs and lamented that she was just getting over being sick as well. Later in the set when she coughed, we pointed at each other and cough game recognized cough game.

I wasn’t the only one either—I was one of many fun crowd interactions. (Editor’s note: she asked if Pittsburgh and Cleveland really didn’t like each other and the crowd responded “yes.” When she probed as to why, and is it about sports, people shouted “no!” They’re lying, Sharon. It’s the only reason. Well, that and Pittsburgh just doesn’t return our calls anymore and never wants to hang out.)

Also, while talking about Van Etten’s character, shout out to her and her management for allowing a local band to open up the show. It feels like a dying thing to have a local band as an opener and Van Etten allowed the opportunity for Likenesses to open the show. It’s a cool and an important chance for local bands to get that exposure and Likenesses took advantage with a really great set. Just want to give props where it’s due and it’s awesome for this band to get a moment to shine.

It all comes back to Van Etten being a real person behind all those heartbreaking songs. Someone who smiles, jokes and watches movies (as evidenced by her recommendation to see the Australian comedy The Castle). This could have been any person in your life, that’s how comfortable it all felt.

Artists shouldn’t be put into boxes because they are people too, and it would be easy to put Van Etten into a box because of the themes of her songs and how they are performed, but why limit it? Just accept her for who she is – a great songwriter and pretty cool person.


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