Living up to the hype? An evening with Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten + Kyp Malone – Mercury Lounge – October 9th

For once, the Mercury Lounge was nearly full for the opener, but I suppose that’s hardly surprising considering the opener was Kyp Malone (of TV on the Radio).

Kyp Malone (Courtesy of artist)

Kyp began his show not with a song, but with a candid opening speech of sorts that helped establish the warm tone for the evening. He even reached out to the sound guy. “Hi. Who are you?” he asked, peering out over the crowd. “Kevin? I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet each other before and now we’re working together. I don’t get wi-fi at my house.” No doubt he would have taken the time to introduce himself to the whole room if he had had the chance, but knowing that time was in short supply, he began to play. As if to echo his verbal introduction, Malone kicked off his set with a long, wandering instrumental intro on the guitar before he began to sing.

As soon as he stopped playing, the banter picked up again, and this time the focus was on Sharon. “You guys have the new record? [pause] This guy says no. Well you should get it. It’s fucking fantastic.” He leaned away from the mic. “And I mean that,” he said conspiringly to the guy who had spoken out.

“I have a lot of songs I could play,” he continued with the mic, once more. “But a very limited time.” “Play the good ones!” someone in the crowd yelled. “The good ones? Well that’s relative. How about the ones I know the words to?” Malone countered.

He continued to eyeball his watch between each song. “Oh, where does the time go?” he asked with a sigh. If  this review is unusually heavy on the dialogue, it’s because Malone’s set was just as much about the banter as it was about the music. I mean it isn’t exactly a normal occurrence to have a musician tell a story about a ‘zombie Hitler character’ that he encountered in Eastern Europe (don’t worry, all turned out well. Apparently just hearing Sharon sing was enough to sever its head).

After just six songs and more effusive praise for Sharon (“Get ready for beauty”), Malone vacated the stage. Sharon didn’t walk on stage until midnight, but the late set time didn’t deter the fawning crowd. The room was packed. After suffering through a warm opening act, luckily someone thought to turn on the A/C.

“Hello. How is everybody?” Van Etten asked, shyly. “I’m excited to play these songs with my band, but first I’m going to play one by myself.” She picked up her guitar and began her set with “A Crime,” the first song off her latest album. When she had finished, she quickly welcomed three musicians to the stage. “This is my new band.” She stood in silence, tuning her guitar for a few moments, but upon realizing how quiet the room was, she nervously admitted that she sill didn’t quite have a handle on the impromptu stage banter.

Sharon Van Etten at Hopscotch (Photo Ash Crowe)

Despite this warning, she did just fine for herself. If anything, her nervousness only endeared her more to the crowd. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for Kyp dragging my ass to New York. Kyp Malone. I love that man.” “I love you, too, Sharon!” came the response, presumably from Kyp. “I love all you guys,” Sharon said, continuing the love fest. “I look down and the people are smiling at me. I want to take a picture.” Needless to say, it was all pretty charming, and she had the entire room on the verge of simultaneously swooning.

After playing a few songs from Epic, she introduced a new one – so new that it was still unnamed. (But she’s open to suggestions for the title.)

Doug Keith and Cat Martino lend a hand at Hopscotch (Photo Helena Price)

Van Etten was clearly enthused to have a band behind her to share the spotlight and to bolster her sound, and her excitement was contagious. Despite the nervous banter, she also seemed to have gained some confidence (maybe Kyp should stand backstage with her at every show, just whispering praises into her ear). Whatever the reason, she was at the top of her game last night, which is definitely a good thing, considering all the recent (and highly effusive) praise she has gotten in the blogosphere and beyond. But as with Kyp Malone’s set, time was again limited. “I think we have time for one more,” she said, breaking the spell. “No! 80!” came the response from one particularly enthusiastic fan. “80? That’s ridiculous!” laughed Van Etten. At the conclusion of her last song (“Holding Out”), she thanked the packed room for making it out so late on a Saturday night, then walked over to the side of the stage.

But the reception was so warm, that she walked back over to the mic. “I was hoping you’d do that!” she said with excitement before quickly changing gears. She concluded her set with a lovely, sad song that she confessed she usually isn’t “drunk enough to play.” As the house lights came back on, she walked back over to her band mates who had been hovering over on the side of the stage, and gave them all a group hug. Though the action was localized, the warm, celebratory sentiment pervaded the crowd.

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