Get in the Van
It was a tale of two Sharon Van Ettens Thursday night at Mercy Lounge. As expected, there was the Sharon Van Etten we remembered, who gave a shout-out to Murfreesboro's defunct venue and coffee shop Red Rose (RIP) during an aw-shucksy stretch of banter that was heavy on thank-yous. And then there was a Sharon Van Etten we'd never really seen before, at least not in person. More on her in a bit.
We wondered if a local might have been added to the undercard, but we got our answer soon enough, as Baltimore's Jenn Wasner took the stage with her new made-for-this-tour band Flock of Dimes. We're big fans of Wasner's main gig, Wye Oak, but this is not like that. And we definitely weren't expecting her band to include a guy playing his bass "backwards and upside-down," as Wasner described it. What we got was a washy, swirling haze of guitar, chorused-reverbed-delayed like crazy, the kind of dense tone we associate with disintegration and the bloodying of valentines — a few of our favorite things. And yes, as a friend of The Spin mentioned more than once, it sounded a bit (or maybe a lot) like Cocteau Twins. But even at its most ethereal, Wasner's voice has a bluesy rasp that lets you know she's no shoegazer.
And come to think of it, it was a tale of two Jenn Wasners Thursday night, too. After a relatively short set, she announced she'd written a song for the Swedish pop singer Robyn.
"She doesn't know it yet," Wasner added.
"You guys seem so serious," she continued as her bandmates exited. "But if you want to have some fun, I'll be up here, having fun. By myself." (Just like in that one Robyn song!) And with that, a pulsating rhythm track started up, and Wasner, sans guitar, busted out four minutes of unabashedly catchy four-on-the-floor electropop. When we put that performance — in all its unexpected, hair-tousling, dancing-with-myself glory — alongside her wiry Neil Young-isms in Wye Oak and her billowy atmospherics as Flock of Dimes, we have to wonder: Is there anything this woman can't do?
One thing The Spin couldn't seem to do was not be out on the smoking deck when the headliner started her set, so we had to rush in and fumble for our notepad in the dark. And that was when we saw her: the other Sharon Van Etten we mentioned at the top. This Sharon Van Etten didn't just sing great songs in an amazing voice, though she did plenty of that. This Sharon Van Etten stared back harder, strummed louder and sang braver than the one who played The 5 Spot a year-and-a-half ago with darting, half-closed eyes.
It certainly helped that her new band kicks a lot of ass. The additions of drummer Zeke Hutchins (a veteran of Portastatic and Tift Merritt's band) and multi-instrumentalist Heather Woods Broderick have helped build a bigger, tighter, gnarlier live show. Woods Broderick did a bit of everything, providing crystalline harmonies — including an awesome Julianna Barwick-esque vocal loop to open crowd favorite "Don't Do It" — along with guitar, bass and keys. Doug Keith toggled between bass and guitar, which he attacked with a bow at one point.
Having so much more musical firepower at her back has made Van Etten that much stronger, and the relentless touring has obviously paid huge dividends: "Serpents" uncoiled as a full-on rocker; "Magic Chords" — on which Van Etten clutched an egg-shaped Omnichord to her shoulder — slinked as a woozy, dark waltz; even the words-and-guitar rendition of "Tornado" seemed to ache a little more than last time. The crowd was attentive and somewhat reserved, though at one point Van Etten did smile at someone and exclaim, "I think that's the first time anyone's danced to my music!"
During a tuning break, Van Etten took time to mention how much it means for her to come back here, and said she was grateful for all the familiar faces in the crowd. It was great to see that even armed with her new powers, the gracious, humble Sharon Van Etten was still with us.
Just like honey
When faced with a crucial decision Friday night, The Spin cowered in the face of Bridgestone's epic Van Halen/Kool and the Gang combo, which would've no doubt had the next 500 words writing themselves with jabs at gratuitous drum and guitar solos, prepubescent bass players and a frontman who's spent so many years washing up, his skin must be something like a piece of driftwood.
Instead, we chose an easier show to watch, but one much more challenging to write up: Friday night's Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears appearance at Mercy Lounge, with openers The Preservation. Fresh talent and fun-loving, hard-working bands in vans aren't as easy — or deserving — a target for our good-natured ribbing.
Our first impression of The Preservation was impressed via a cover of Donovan's "Colours" — a stellar jam, the original version of which could scarcely be topped by anyone. But The Preservation's efforts were admittedly noble. From then on, these Austin natives rocked an array of bluesy Texas flavors filtered through vintage Frisco free love and sugared with a tinge of post-Brian Wilson Beach Boys sweetness. Jams favored on the lengthy side — we imagine this quintet must kill it on any given college campus — but for our purposes, we'll say we've ordered beers to far more offensive soundtracks.
In the tradition of Austin's classic guitar-slinging bluesmen, headliners Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears were almost literally sweating out soul from intro to encore, dipping their dirty toes in elements of Motown, Chicago blues and Muscle Shoals soul — and it was all injected with a heavy dose of fuzzy overdrive and delivered with a spine-shivering screaming howl. Essentially a power trio accompanied by a blasting brass three-piece, Lewis wailed about the woes of women, jail time, more women and all the other requisite working-class shit that makes this stuff worth listening to.
Blessed with not only a set of invigorating pipes, Lewis is also an impressively expressive guitarist, shredding his custom all-red-everything Telecaster like Chuck Berry rings a bell. In fact, for a moment we closed our eyes and imagined Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix ripping through Muddy Waters covers on a combo of cheap beer and quality speed.
The band saved their faster tunes for a mid-set second wind, but despite their consideration for dynamics, they seemed to lose almost half a crowd by slipping into a slow jam "for the ladies." Regardless, tempo changes and amplitude dips were mostly negligible. What one gets with a Black Joe Lewis set is a lightly wavering, hourlong onslaught of mud, sweat and beers that, if it could be bottled, would be called something like "Juke Joint Juice" or simply Scandalous — which also happens to be the name of their latest long player.
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