Show Review: Sharon Van Etten @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg 6.12.14
by Ryan Kehr (English/Journalism), published June 17th 2014
Fresh from touring the globe with her new LP, Are We There, Sharon Van Etten returned to her home of Brooklyn, NY last week for an intimate show at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. What followed was a set of both disappointment and triumph—with the line between both just a bit too blurred for my liking.
Having seen Sharon several times before (at such venues as Boston’s own Paradise), I’d like to think I knew what to expect. And in many respects I did: Sharon’s sweet, honest-to-a-fault stage persona wooed the crowd as she bantered back and forth with concert goers and the crowd chuckled as she donned her heavy faux New York accent—par for the course of any Van Etten show. But this wasn’t a Sharon I’d seen before. While the persona was undoubtedly the same, this was an artist at an entirely new stage in her career.
First though, some words on the opener.
Shilpa Ray, standing at maybe 5’ 6”, could knock me, standing at 6’ 4”, unconscious in roughly 4 or 5 seconds. The lead of her band, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, Shilpa was a force. The result of Patti Smith, Frank Sinatra and Sharon Van Etten all thrown into some sort of beautiful musical blender, Shilpa went from soaring intimate vocals to screaming punk lines in the same breath. Her weapon of choice: a jet-black Harmonium that suited her surprisingly well—particularly when paired with the accompanying pedal-steel and Shilpa’s thick, dense vocals.
Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers could be categorized as delta blues meets punk, though I don’t think they fit snugly in any box. Their sound bounced from soulful to pissed-off, from singer-songwriter to gothic burlesque. They were most definitely crowd pleasers and set the bar high for the main act of the night
Then, of course, it was time for Sharon.
Backed by drums, lead guitar, bass, keyboard/back-up vocals and an Omnichord ripped straight from the 90s, the sound was much denser than anything seen in Sharon’s earlier career (i.e. Because I Was in Love, Epic). Unfortunately, denser doesn’t always equal better. In sharp contrast to Shilpa, who just minutes before had belted her powerful vocal lines over her own four-piece backing band, Sharon’s vocals became lost in the shuffle. Rather than pushing the tracks forward, the first half of Sharon’s set was marked by her vocals struggling to pace the intensity of her own band.
She kicked things off with, coincidently, the first two tracks of the new record: “Afraid of Nothing” and “Taking Chances.” While fine enough in their own right, these two songs didn’t have the presence enough to provide a compelling introduction. The pulsating chorus of “Taking Chances” for instance, didn’t pulse so much as it dragged to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe I was still craving the intensity Shilpa had been putting into her tracks, or it might have been Sharon’s constant touring robbing her of energy, but the opening tracks lacked the oomph I was expecting from a woman known for her distinctly effective vocals.
Then, slowly but surely, my disappointment faded as Sharon truly came into her own in the second half of the set. “Break Me,” another track off the new record, showcased a reenergized Van Etten, injecting the chorus with emotive, piercing vocal lines. Following that up was a reimagined “Don’t Do It” off of 2009’s Epic. The track began with an ethereal, eastern-influenced vox loop (think Gladiator soundtrack) and lead into a driving indie-rock chorus with Sharon’s vocals leading the charge.
Each of the final tracks worked well for Van Etten, who was clearly warmed up and in her element. Standouts from the set’s climax included Tramp’s 2012 hit “Serpents” (which killed it with a droning / distorted e-bow intro), “Give Out” and Are We There’s “Your Love is Killing Me.”
The encore featured Sharon coming out solo to perform “I Know”—which succeeded in large part due to her tastefully reverb-laden vocals having a chance to shine on their own—and then wrapped up with Are We There’s ultimate track, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.”
All-in-all the night provided two worthwhile sets: Shilpa woke everyone up with one of the strongest sets from an opener I’ve seen in years and Sharon, after a rocky start, gave me confidence in her new post-Serpents, direction. Her days of wailing over a sole harmonium and singing along side a nylon-string guitar may be over, but her new full-bodied sound has the potential to take her to new heights.
Check out Shilpa and Her Happy Hookers’ new EP, It’s All Self Fillatio, and Sharon Van Etten’s new LP, Are We There, on shelves in a digital or physical music store near you.