Sharon Van Etten at the Bowery Ballroom

Sharon Van Etten and balloon sculpture at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC, 2/25/12. Photo: Michael Lavorgna.

To be moved by Sharon Van Etten’s warm, sensuous voice, the remarkable power and soul in her phrasing and delivery, the heaviness of her sad words, you need only listen to her latest album, Tramp (see my review in the March issue, on sale now). Its effects are immediate. To be absolutely captivated, charmed, dazzled by her presence and promise, to want to get to know her better, it helps to see Van Etten perform live.

On Saturday, February 25th, Sharon Van Etten walked out onto the stage before a packed house at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. She wore a red dress, black heels, a guitar, and an honest smile.

“I love you!” someone hollers from the crowd.

I love you,” Van Etten mimicks in return, before joking, “Is that you, dad?”

We laugh. Van Etten giggles and offers, half-embarrassed and half-delighted: “Van Ettens are in the house tonight. Just a warning.”

Throughout the performance, Van Etten returns often to her love for family and friends, addressing different aunts, uncles, and cousins, and sharing anecdotes with the rest of us. In this respect, seeing Van Etten perform live is not at all unlike listening to her albums on the stereo: We’re allowed into a private world, feel as though we’re eavesdropping on the most intimate conversations. We want to get to know her better.

Unmistakable senses of warmth, admiration, and love move from the crowd to the stage and back. In between songs, Van Etten thanks her friends in the Antlers for the gift of a giant balloon sculpture. Tomorrow is her birthday. She’ll be 31. She brings the balloon sculpture forward on the stage and keeps it close by, moves it only when the time comes to introduce the band, “jack-offs” all: multi-instrumentalist Heather Woods Broderick, bassist Doug Keith, drummer Zeke Hutchins. The band is strong throughout the set, playing mostly songs from Tramp and mixing in a couple from Epic.

Before the last song is played, the crowd takes a turn singing to Van Etten. “Happy birthday to you…”

“We started that one, right here,” someone—perhaps an uncle or cousin—calls out to the stage, proudly.

After a too-short encore, Van Etten brings out the opening band, Shearwater, for a final song: A powerful and stirring rendition of Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” during which Van Etten finally puts down the guitar, turns away from the crowd, and sings, her smile growing brighter with each verse.

R Browne's picture

...KCRW did a live studio session with Sharon Van Etten on 3/19/12. Video and audio at: