Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has been getting a lot of press this month, and deservedly so. Her third and latest album, Tramp, is a strong collection of songs, with some of the moody introspection of her previous records as well as a new, harder-charging sound on the standout track “Serpents.” Van Etten played to packed houses last Thursday and Friday nights at Lincoln Hall in Chicago; I was there Friday (Feb. 17).
When Van Etten played the very first afternoon set of the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, her seemed a little tentative, like someone unaccustomed to playing on such a big stage. On Friday night, her singing was more assertive, and she had a trio of musicians helping to give her music a fuller sound. She still seemed a bit unnerved or uncertain about being in the spotlight. Van Etten was in a silly, giggly mood, joking around quite a bit in between songs, creating a strange contrast with her more serious lyrics. The fumbling around in between songs was charming at times, but after a while, the show’s erratic pacing became a distraction. Van Etten joked that we were watching her learning how to have a band, and that’s just what it felt like — not entirely a bad thing. Most interesting was the way Van Etten and her band stretched out the openings of some songs, creating drones that set the mood for the songs that eventually emerged.
Opening act Shearwater played an impressive set dominated by songs from its new record Animal Joy. Although most of the musicians backing Shearwater’s singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg were new to the lineup, but they played tight, rocking versions of the band’s art rock.
At the end of the night, when Van Etten played her encore, the members of Shearwater came back onto the stage, too. Van Etten and Meiburg swapped lead vocals in a cover of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” From what I hear, they teamed up the night before on a cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.”