Brooklyn songstress Sharon Van Etten debuted her forthcoming album, Tramp, in its entirety last night to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Mercury Lounge. The intimate Lower East Side venue was loaded to its red brick walls with about 250 critics, hipsters and top-tier EttenHeads who had no difficulty using their inside voices to tell the demure singer/songwriter, “You’re awesome.”
“If by ‘awesome’ you mean ‘clumsy,’” Van Etten laughed while tuning up a thick-bodied, cherry-red electric guitar—one of about five instruments she employed throughout the one-hour set. She retained this modesty for most of the night, garbed in a black sweater and matching pants, singing from behind a curtain of black hair until the time for head-banging became apparent. The crowd stood silent as acolytes through most of this, as if there only to confirm Tramp‘s awesomeness while Van Etten and her three-piece backing band worked through the gorgeous new material.
Van Etten swapped out guitars between folky jaunts, dark poetic ballads and the occasional reverb-laden stomper. She picked up an electric ukulele for the appropriately breezy “We Are Fine” and hugged a bulky white omnichord (which kind of looks like a plastic harpsichord designed by Fisher Price) to her chest during “Magic Chords,” a cooing shanty of marching drums and seeping MIDI rhythm. “Serpents,” a bout of pure propulsion that rocked Fallon a few weeks ago, proved an early act highlight that had Van Etten and backup singer/bassist/keyboardist/general awesome musician Heather Woods Broderick wailing “serpents in my mind” together while the room shook with drummer Zeke Hutchins’ relentless snare fills.
But the surprise standout of the evening came halfway through the set with Tramp B-side starter, “All I Can.” The slow-building, three-chord apology tune remained heavy with reverb all the way to its cathartic peak, where Van Etten belted out with full force “I do all I can/We all make mistakes.” At that quintessential school of rock climax where the guitar solo usually comes blistering forth, Sharon started humming. The thunder of applause that followed was a stark reminder that Sharon Van Etten’s voice is the most powerful instrument in her arsenal—and why it’s taken her this far.
Photos by Brandon Specktor