Singer-songwriter wows Knoxville with intimate performance
On a rainy, unseasonably cool night in late April, the appropriately cozy environs of the Square Room played host to a diverse set of beautifully crafted songs by Sharon Van Etten. Touring in support of her excellent third album, Tramp, the NPR darling and emerging star delivered a performance of hushed intensity to a small but reverent audience at the Market Square listening room.
Kicking off the evening’s events, though, was Flock of Dimes, a Baltimore three-piece culled together by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner to explore her solo material. Although Wasner joked in between songs that she formed the band expressly to take part in the tour, in actuality the group already had released a seven-inch vinyl and has plans to record a full-length album.
While the band exhibited good stage presence and had plenty of energy, the reverb-heavy melodies unfortunately were not conducive to the venue. Perhaps it was the funky dimensions of the space or the sheer volume of the music, but the songs came across as murky and the vocals were unclear, marring what otherwise would have been an enjoyable set. The lack of a live drummer, too, prevented the group from sounding fully realized; the one song on which Van Etten’s drummer sat in was better than anything else the band presented.
Van Etten’s set was preceded by a selection of tracks performed mostly by New York-based bands, fitting for a musician who now resides in Brooklyn. A scan of the crowd revealed that this concert, while intimate, was far better attended than the singer-songwriter’s last stop in Knoxville, a captivating but pitifully small show nearly two years ago at the Pilot Light in the Old City. Most disappointing about the poor turnout that night was the fact that the opener was Marissa Nadler, another talented Baltimore artist whose enchanting and unique style of nouveau goth-folk is as gorgeous as it is spooky.
Taking the stage to respectful if not rapturous applause, Van Etten and her ace backing band began with the slow burn of “All I Can,” a deep cut from the new record. As the power of the song unfolded, it became clear that everyone in attendance would be treated to a very special night. The group was tight, the sound was right and Van Etten’s voice floated delightfully over the stunned audience.
“Warsaw,” the ethereal opening track to Tramp, came next. Amazing to behold in a live setting, a haunting guitar squall punctuated the desperation in Van Etten’s confessional lyrics. Following that was “Peace Signs,” a standout from Epic, her 2010 sophomore release. Buoyed by thumping bass and rolling percussion, the song heaved with emotion before crashing to an abrupt conclusion.
For someone who exudes such concentrated fury while performing, Van Etten’s stage banter was unexpectedly and shockingly light. Giggling awkwardly at bad jokes she cracked and shyly engaging with audience members, she tempered the gut-wrenching content of her songs with refreshing ease. But considering the affecting nature of tracks like “Give Out,” “Heart in the Ground” and “Joke or a Lie,” such inanity was a welcome reprieve from the heaviness.
Highlights of the fifteen-song performance included “I’m Wrong,” which positively shimmered with splendor, and “Serpents,” the first single from Tramp. The latter track, which features a surging, propulsive rhythm and artful embellishments of noise, was especially well-received by the crowd, who roared their approval. However, traditional set closer “Love More” was truly awe-inspiring. Building on a droning accordion riff, the waltz-y song progressed steadily, with both Van Etten and the audience locked into a trance-like state.
The folks at both AC Entertainment and the Square Room deserve a tremendous amount of praise for booking such a gifted and compelling artist as Van Etten. She graced our scruffy little city with what can be best described as ear candy, and everyone who was unable to attend the show certainly missed out on a wonderful experience. If only every Tuesday resulted in such elation…