Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sharon Van Etten and Junip at The Earl, Atlanta; November 21, 2010

Yes, Rocktober is officially over and the Atlanta concert calendar is looking a little lean for the next few months, but last Sunday night, I couldn't resist the temptation to go to what appeared to be the one last "quality" booking of the year: Sharon Van Etten and Junip at the redoubtable, beloved, and ever-dependable Earl.

I really went more to see the opening act, Van Etten, more than the headliner, Junip, and that's more than a little surprising because I have to admit that I started out on the wrong foot in my appreciation of her music. I first heard her singing on a couple of tracks by the folk-rock band The Antlers, but at about the same time, the chamber-pop quartet Clogs released The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton, featuring former opera singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on several tracks. While I can appreciate the artistry, those tracks were not to my particular taste, and my mind eventually confused Shara with Sharon and Worden with Van Etten, and I came to assume that SVE sang in an operatic soprano and for much of this year I avoided listening to her music.

But I kept hearing about Van Etten in the press and on line. She seemed to be a musician's musician, and artists as disparate as Kip Malone even said in interviews that they wanted to record with her. So I checked out a few of her songs and found that instead of being a strident soprano, she was a captivating singer-songwriter, more in the tradition of Laura Viers or Josh Rouse, and I've been listening lately to several songs from her new album, epic. So on a pleasantly warm, Georgia autumn night, I drove over to The Earl to catch her set.

What hasn't really been discussed in many of these music-related postings lately is the awkward situation of a man my age going to these rock clubs, often alone, to hear these new, young bands. Typically, I'm at least 30 years older than the median age at these shows, and probably 15 years older than the second-oldest person. Did you ever hear Chris Rock's routine about that one guy you always see in the club who's way too old to be there? Sometimes I feel like that's me, so when I go out to these clubs or concert halls, I try to maintain a low profile, waiting quietly in the back until the music starts, and then slipping unnoticed into the crowd to enjoy the music. I've gotten a few odd looks and have even been teased a little, but generally the young audiences have treated me with what might be called a benign neglect.

I bring this up now because I was "outed" last Sunday night, from the stage, by Sharon Van Etten herself. Not in a mean way at all - actually, as you'll see, in the kindness, nicest way possible.

A pretty good-sized crowd for a Sunday night turned up at the Earl to see Van Etten, and when she started to play, a few of us (myself included in that "us") approached the stage. After her first song, she encouraged us to come closer still to the stage, joking "the worst that I'm going to do is spit on you." We came closer.

Her first couple of songs were greeted warmly by the crowd, and I wanted to make sure that she felt our appreciation. Her second or third song was the mesmerizing Don't Do It from epic, and when she finished, I shouted out a "great!" among the other cheers and applause. I thought that she looked my way with a smile, which encouraged me to yell out "you're great!" at the end of her next song.

With that, she thanked the crowd for their enthusiasm, and then pointed directly at me and said, "I want that guy right there at every show I do from now on so that I can hear someone say 'great' every time I sing." I laughed and nodded my head, but she kept on going. "I wish I could just record that 'great!' and play it back every time I feel down. I wish that I had a, um, you know, one of those recording things, to capture that 'great!' for all my shows."

So now the whole audience was looking at the old man standing by himself near the front of the stage, who was as self conscious as possible and just dumbly smiling back at Van Etten, but then The Earl's sound engineer made matters worse by walking up to the stage and handing her one of those, um, you know, recording things, a small box-like device for digital capture and playback. She pointed it at me and asked me to say "you're great" once again.

I teased her a little, using my fingertips to pantomime zipping my mouth shut, to which she said, "Come on. I want to listen to it to cheer me up when I'm blue." I told her I use her music for the same purpose, and then gave her a "you're great!" if only to get past the awkward moment and on, as they say, with the show.

So much for going incognito. Part of my mind wondered if she was being sincere or just teasing me for being that one guy in the club who was way too old to be there, but I doubt it - she seems overall to be one of the sweetest, nicest performers you'll ever meet. "I'm a nervous person," she recently confided to The Village Voice. "I know that I'm very insecure, but I'm a lot more secure than I used to be." Which leads me to believe that she genuinely appreciated hearing "you're great" and had no intention of mocking me.

But back to the show. For the first several songs, Van Etten was backed by a small band consisting of a drummer and bass player, while she played guitar and, on one number, harmonium. Eventually, her band left the stage and she performed alone with just her guitar, singing Cyclone at the request of someone in the audience she apparently knew ("Did you get a haircut?" she asked. "It looks good!"). She sang all of the songs that I had wanted to hear, had a warm and intimate stage presence, and by the end of the set, everyone in the audience understood what the buzz was all about.

Here's a video of her in LA last week performing her song One Day, a song she dedicated to her mother last Sunday night, noting that "Mom likes it 'cause she thinks it sounds like Fleetwood Mac" and dances around the house like Stevie Nicks (or Andrea Estella?) listening to it. After the song was finished, she then pointed out that although the song was dedicated to her mother, she had no issues with her father, and the line in the song that goes "I'm okay with that," was not "I'm okay with Dad," as her mother had thought she was singing.

If anything, her set was too short, having to yield the stage to the headliner. For now, Van Etten may be just a warm-up act, but I sincerely believe she's capable of a big breakthrough in no more than one or two recordings.

Sweden's Junip was the evening's headliner. Junip are from Gothenburg, the same town in Sweden that The xx are from, although their music is far different. While The xx bring a sort of ultra-minimalism to R&B, a form not necessarily known for its reserve, Junip brings compositional complexity to normally austere folk forms.

The most amazing thing about Junip may be that the band exists at all. Their front man, Jose Gonzalez, was born of Argentine parents but raised in Sweden. Junip released one EP back in 2000 but then went their separate ways, and Gonzalez realized a successful solo career recording several albums under his own name. But somehow the band got back together, and Gonzalez gave up performing his own songs and once again became a part of Junip.

Gonzalez is the singer and front man for the band, which last Sunday night also included a keyboardist, a bass player, a drummer and an multi-instrumental percussionist. Their music is a sort of moody folk rock, but the extra percussion gave their songs a propulsive kick and the keyboards provided electronic flourishes and washes of sound.

Like The xx, everything about Junip was polite - their music, the band, and Gonzelez' stage presence.

The normally reserved Earl crowd, which I've seen let several bands finish their sets without an encore, enthusiastically called Junip back on stage at the end of their set. For their encore, Junip had Sharon Van Etten and her band on stage with them for a rousing cover of U2's With Or Without You, Gonzalez yielding the microphone to Van Etten after the first chorus and allowing her to just soar with the verses. A great finish to the evening.

In fact, hearing Van Etten with a full band in a rock format hinted at one possibility for her future. She crafts wonderful and vulnerable yet cheerful songs best heard with as little adornment over her voice as possible, but when she wants to lift her voice up over a full band and project back to the cheap seats, lessons learned during a childhood of choir practice kick in. She showed that she can carry a rock band - or can be carried by a rock band - if she ever decides to go that route.

Van Etten's tour now has her in Japan for the rest of the year, and Junip will play a few dates back in Europe before heading to Australia.

So this really may be the last concert review on this blog for this year. I can honestly say that I don't regret going to a single show I've seen, but do have a few regrets over shows that I've missed. I'll try not to let that happen next year.

No comments: