It had been months since I saw a good thunderstorm. Sharon Van Etten put an end to that stretch last night at First Avenue. She summoned angry synths, crashing cymbals, and even windchimes and threw them into a shuddering cacophony. More impressive: She quieted the chaos at will.
Van Etten has returned to the music world after taking a few years to nurture a new relationship, raise her first child, and study psychology at Brooklyn College. Her new album Remind Me Tomorrow is a dark project she says is influenced by Portishead, Nick Cave, and Patti Smith. It opens with a true story about telling a close friend about a near-death experience and closes with a song for her son.
I’m trying to say that Van Etten’s new album, like most of her older music, takes a lot of energy to listen to and likely much more to perform. Yet she danced through “Comeback Kid” and screamed “Seventeen” while looking untouchable. In fact, she performed all 10 songs from Remind Me Tomorrow, plus a smattering of “oldies” (“One Day,” “Serpents”). “We’re so proud of you,” yelled one of many in-crowd cheerleaders.
Two-thirds through the show, Van Etten asked the audience to take a deep breath. “It feels like we could use that right now,” she said before she counted to three and inhaled. Sitting at the piano, she proceeded to sing of Margaret Thatcher and police brutality in a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys On Mopeds,” which she has been performing across the nation this tour. O’Connor sang of England, but Van Etten intended fans in the United States to listen carefully.
The show wasn’t without minor issues; Van Etten’s vocal levels were too low throughout, allowing Heather Woods Broderick’s background harmonies to overpower her voice. But throughout the show, I stood impressed by Van Etten’s power and composure. “Thank you for waiting for me,” she told First Avenue. I’d do it all over again.
London’s Nilüfer Yanya opened the show with music that felt like a Slinky: coiled but a little loosey-goosey. It sounded more jazzy live than in the studio, thanks to a saxophonist and a whole lot of drum brushes. But it wasn’t relaxed; Yanya’s voice often squeaked deliberately, caught an intentional flat, or lashed out like a snapping turtle. She kept time by rapping on her guitar. New songs “Melt” and “Safety Net” promise great things of her debut album-to-come Miss Universe (out March 22).
Sharon Van Etten Set List:
No One’s Easy To Love
Black Boys On Mopeds (Sinead O’Connor cover)
Every Time The Sun Comes Up
I Told You Everything
Photos by Mary Mathis