Fresh off a slot headlining NPR's South By Southwest showcase and an appearance on Conan the night before, Sharon Van Etten played an emotionally-charged set to a sold-out and receptive Independent crowd Wednesday night.
I walked in just as Philadelphia's the War On Drugs was kicking off its set, which proved to be a satisfyingly loud, jammy, and psych-tinged counterpart to Van Etten's more straightforward sound. Both big fans of the band's 2011 album, Slave Ambient, my friend and I had expressed some pre-show concerns about how the songs would translate live, seeing as just how vital the hazy production seemed to be to that record. Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Tracks like "Brothers," "Come to the City" and "Your Love Is Calling My Name" sounded huge, capturing both the infectious Springsteen-esque melodies of leader Adam Granduciel and the thick layers of foggy synth and guitar effects perfectly.
Apparently unimpressed with the group's unique hybrid of Americana and druggy shoegaze, a texting audience member right up front was repeatedly called out by Granduciel throughout the set, much to the amusement of the crowd. "Whatcha got on there, you reading the New York Post or something," he said sarcastically. "Maybe you were looking up tabs for the song we were just playing, while we were playing it? Try learning this next one. I don't think you can play it."
At one point, he called for the guy to count off the next song, which he did, quite enthusiastically at that, only to have not a single member of the band hit a note after he'd reached "4." It was all a bit awkward, but pretty damn funny.
If The War On Drugs' rapport with the crowd could be defined by those slightly surly exchanges, Sharon Van Etten's was an entirely different animal. From the first moments, the show took on the feel of a casual conversation between Van Etten, her bandmates, and the audience; it was full of charmingly off-the-cuff moments and storytelling.
Entering the stage solo, she opened the set with an acoustic number before welcoming her band on stage and declaring, "Alright, now for the real shit." Tracks from Tramp, her recent critically-acclaimed album, dominated much of the set, which, with the backing of her excellent band, sounded tight and as emotionally resonant as fans would have hoped.
Between songs, Van Etten's personality shone through, conveying a really humbled sense of charm, wit, and affability. Clearly familiar with her New Jersey roots, a number of East Coast transplants in the crowd began shouting out neighborhoods and landmarks, which seemed to catch her off guard at first. Rather than ignore the somewhat banal references, however, this became a running thread throughout the show, as we were treated to bite-sized tidbits about the random places being yelled out, such as the bar where she smoked her first cigarette, the high school where her teenage boyfriend went ("He was really cool, and he had a car") or the elementary school where her aunt worked as a substitute teacher.
As engaging as the loose back-and-forth banter was throughout the evening, the music was even better. Whether it was drifting by on the sparse "Kevin's" or ratcheting up a few notches on melancholic rockers such as "Serpents," Van Etten's voice was the star of the show.
As I watched her burn through a driving version of "Don't Do It," a highlight from her 2010 album, Epic, I was struck by how much more self-assured and professional she sounded than when I'd seen her at Bottom of the Hill just a year prior. In fact, the whole show seemed like a snapshot of a songwriter who is just beginning to feel comfortable in her own skin – which made me even more excited to see where she goes from here.