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 the 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.
After dodging the multi-laked mini-Minnesota that had welled up in the parking lot, we peeled away from the mostly young (and oddly giddy) crowd on its way to the Cannery Ballroom for Portugal. The Man, and headed upstairs. 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 to see 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 at Mercy Lounge, 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 stage right. "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, proceeded to bust 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, all apologies to anyone we smacked into along the way. (Sorry, nice-seeming dude with the affable paunch.)
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. She closed the night with "Love More," and as her voice soared above the reedy, plaintive drone of the harmonium, it seemed to lift all of us up with it, however briefly.