by Steve Haruch
The last time I saw Sharon Van Etten play in Tennessee, it was at The 5 Spot, capacity 200-ish, and here she was playing the second stage at Bonnaroo six months later. Needless to say, that's a hell of a half-year, a fact that was not lost on her. "I'm a little overwhelmed," she said, surveying the crowd as she and her band — drummer Ben Lord and bassist Doug Keith — took to Which Stage right around their scheduled time of 12:15 Friday afternoon. Then she asked, in her characteristically unassuming way, "Who smells like garbage?" and raised her hand enthusiastically. It was already brutally hot. The assembled crowd, which, at least as it seemed from my vantage point in the pit area, grew continuously as the set wore on, was a mix of hardcore fans singing every word, people checking her out for the first time and folks who just happened to be there because it was the first music of the day at the stage that was closest.
"I used to live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and I am not ashamed," she said as she introduced "Don't Do It," to a smattering of applause. "This is a song about there." (If you're familiar at all with her personal history in Rutherford County, you know that's more than GPS fodder.) Van Etten's songs, introspective and raw, aren't exactly noodle-dancing material (though a few gave it a try), so the fact that she held a midday festival crowd rapt for an entire set — which included two songs performed just guitar and voice — should tell you something. I've seen SVE play with her current lineup four times now, and all of those shows have transported me. This was no exception, even if it felt like someone was holding a waffle iron a few inches from my face. I saw someone wipe away tears. But really, the best review I can think of for this particular performance is to describe what happened right in front of me during Van Etten's very first song.
One woman standing near me was, like many of the women around me and, indeed, around Bonnaroo, wearing very little in the way of clothing, owing to the heat. (Or maybe owing to some sort of vanity. I'm not judging.) For all I know, she was wearing a pair of shoelaces as a top, because that's what it looked like from my vantage point. The only reason I mention the way she was dressed is because it meant that I could see almost her entire back, save a thin isthmus of black fabric running just below her shoulder blades. The only reason I mention the fact that I could see almost her entire back is because the very first time Van Etten reached up into the higher register of her voice, to sing the line, "Never let myself love like that again," the de facto chorus of "A Crime," this woman's back and arms — did I mention it was brutally hot? — instantaneously turned to goosebumps. And those chills came back a few more times as SVE and band worked through set staples like "One Day" and "Save Yourself," the older "Tornado" (arranged for full band) and two new songs, closing with the always mesmerizing harmonium-driven "Love More."
Having spent the last couple days tumbling through a comedy of errors, I'm off-site and not sure if anyone's already mentioned the fact that Which Stage now has a giant video screen — a welcome upgrade, and a fact that Van Etten and band told me they were not aware of while they were playing. During the set, Van Etten also made note of the head-scratchingly odd scheduling that put her and Jessica Lea Mayfield on at the same time: "I wish I could clone myself," she said at one point. That's not possible on a couple different levels, but if it was, that's a lot of midday-heat goosebumps we'd be talking about.