Unless we're talking about Bob Dylan, folk music doesn't seem like the most likely contender to sell out a nearly 500 person venue. But, that's exactly what happened at a wonderfully low-key performance at the Bowery Ballroom from breakthrough folk artist Sharon Van Etten
and her opening act Shearwater
, a psychedelic folk rock band from Texas. It was the evening before Sharon Van Etten's 31st birthday (even though she doesn't look a day over 25) and with enough family members in the audience for us to start making Sly and the Family Stone jokes, it was truly a family affair and Sharon immediately won the audience over with her playful banter, gorgeous voice, and wonderful compositions.
Shearwater started the night off with a solid if not phenomenal start. Lead singer Jonathon Meiburg has one of the best baritones this side of The National's Matt Berninger and lead guitarist/sound effects wizard/second drummer Lucas Oswald was performing so many duties on stage that watching him go was a visceral delight. The crowd was really digging their conventional psych rock sound, but at times, it felt as if too many of the songs were simply blending together although "Breaking the Yearlings" remains a fantastic single. There were moments when the band really started to experiment with more interesting textures and delightfully erratic structure, but the band spent too much time toying with indie rock conventions to really stand out.
Sharon played for an hour and a half. Her sheer charm and obvious talent made up for any shortcomings that individual songs had. Whether she was cursing like a sailor (and still managing to be adorable), telling stories about her family that was present (including both parents) and engaging in several back and forths with the audience, or simply coming up with another way to keep the audience entertained while she spent minutes between songs tuning her instruments, Sharon Van Etten had an endlessly winning personality, and for the most part, the music backed her up.
Her last LP, Tramp
came out last week, and while most of the music came from her new album, there were some older tracks as well. The best song of the night was Tramp
's foot-stomper "Serpents" but her mix of indie rock and folk played well, and whether Sharon was on her electric guitar, acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, or some weird computer guitar (it wasn't a keytar), it was easy to appreciate her ambition to create something a little more unique than standard indie folk fare. At times, it became difficult to tell one acoustic ballad from the next, but those were small marks against an otherwise wonderful and lengthy set that ensured every audience member got what they paid to see.