It was like catching up with an old friend. The last time I saw Sharon Van Etten headline a gig, it was almost six years ago at what used to be called the Avalon. She was on tour to promote her breakout album Tramp. It was so long ago that The War on Drugs was the opening band.
So much has happened since then. Amidst the crush of streaming options, I completely lost track of Van Etten during the entire album cycle for her 2014 LP Are We There. The Avalon is no longer. Adam Granduciel’s band blew up and won a Grammy. And Sharon Van Etten dabbled in acting, became a mom and grew her hair long.
This I learned when she crept out on to the stage Saturday night at The Moroccan Lounge, resembling Superman 2 era Margot Kidder. Immediately, there were signs of an unusual performance. Not only was there an absence of new material online leading up to the show, Van Etten came on at the early hour of 8 pm, and did so all by her lonesome.
Her tiptoe timidness (“I’m so nervous,” she confided) was greeted by what became an entirely hushed and hypnotized room. Scattered among a handful of older songs, Van Etten debuted a collection of unnamed cuts during the intimate affair. “I haven’t played a proper show in three years,” she told us.
Despite SVE’s self-declared nervousness, she upholds a commanding presence on stage. I can’t recall anyone else who sings in such a way that is both fragile and steely at once. It defines her authenticity. Nudging the door open with 2010 track “I Wish I Knew,” Sharon Van Etten’s down strokes brought on a wave of pensive melancholy that did not relent during the set.
Most surprising was her reliance on digital loops of pre-recorded beats in the new works. With the second number, she teased more of what was to come by setting a bass-heavy drum loop. The unrecognized tune preceded a true shot-across-the-bow warning from Sharon: “This is where it gets weird.”
What followed was another digitized beat reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” a pivot to play the piano, and then a series of songs decorated with spaced out drone sounds. During one new one, likely titled “Comeback Kid,” Van Etten set a machine snare beat mid-song. The lyrics clawed with familiar desperation: “Don’t let me slip away / I’m not a runaway / It just feels that way.”
SVE shared the familiar “In Line” in the middle of the set. It too had a repetitive loop foundation, but its lethargic pace called the room back to the days of Tramp. But after this, the fifth song, she declared, “Ok. That’s it for guitar songs.”
One piano tune felt like one of those organic Stefani Germanotta moments, as Van Etten pushed her vocals up and out a bit sans any digital effects. “Malibu,” also new, flirted with a faint lightness in lyrics, perhaps discovered by moving to Los Angeles for a few months, and “driving down the 1.” “Jupiter 4” is the working title of a buzzy song that relies heavily on industrial synths, and one that falls on the edgiest end of Beach House’s sonic spectrum. However, Sharon snuck warm tones in and among the pounding bass notes, portending the affirmation in its closing line, “Our love is for real.”
In all, Sharon Van Etten still quivers as if nearly paralyzed by melancholy and her infinite sadness. Her set in the darkened shoebox setting of The Moroccan was a minor chord fest that brought me back to haunting feels experienced at the Avalon circa 2012. But a new, heavier, downbeat digital sadness is evidence of an artist’s evolution. Like catching up with that old friend, some things change, while others never will.
File Photo: Raymond Flotat