Sharon Van Etten at Pabst Theater
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In the post-Lilith Fair world, the female solo artist sweepstakes have been sold back to the sex appeal industry. All “Girlapalooza” jokes aside, there was a brief period in the late ’90s when earnest song craft could quickly land a girl on pop radio. It’s not nearly as easy for the sensitive singer-songwriter to break into the mainstream nowadays, especially since the concept of mainstream has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. In 1999, Sharon Van Etten could have vaulted into the Top 40 alongside Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole, but in 2011, indie cred is a measure of success separate but equal to the manufactured world of Katy Perry and Ke$ha. In the real world, playing a free show at the intimate Pabst Theater to an audience that’s actually paying attention to the words can be a crowning achievement in its own right.
Van Etten started her set by encouraging the seated audience to stand up, and she seemed genuinely appreciative when a sizable crowd flocked to the front of the stage. After two songs by herself, she welcomed her band onstage—drummer Ben Lord and bassist Doug Keith—for “Peace Signs.” Her breathy voice grew stronger as she played with the band, but the extra accompaniment coupled with Van Etten’s lighthearted stage persona served to soften the bite of her often heartbreaking lyrics. The highlights of the full band set featured opener Laurel Sprengelmeyer (a.k.a. Little Scream) on backing vocals; the bendy harmonies of “Save Yourself” and “Don’t Do It” are challenging, but Sprengelmeyer pulled them off beautifully.
The only problem with the performance was that Van Etten’s backing band was often too much or not enough. Her 2010 breakthrough album, Epic, features some rich, atmospheric moments that couldn’t be duplicated by this trio, and Sharon’s voice is so effective by itself that she might have been better off without the band at all. Her encore was by far the most engaging part of the show—just a guitar and her haunting voice for “It’s Not Like” and “Damn Right.” The crowd was enthralled.
Little Scream’s intriguing opening set made the most of a minimal three-piece setup through various loops and instruments, and Sprengelmeyer’s ingratiating presence shone through the often strange arrangements. But the impressive three-part harmonies and sparse, dynamic folk-rock of local heroes Juniper Tar started the night off with a performance every bit as powerful as the headliner’s.