When the sun clears the tree line at Bonnaroo — around mid-morning in the middle of June in the middle of Tennessee — it not only throws its hot beams onto the wide, suddenly populous fields, it also seems to draw additional heat out of them. It's as if the heat had merely sunk down into the cracked dirt for the few hours of darkness, waiting to be called back, making an eerie steam from the dew as it convects.
When Sharon Van Etten and her band play on Friday of the 2011 festival, the grass in front of Which Stage is already overwhelmed by sunlight, as the cauldron of morning boils over into afternoon. Van Etten opens with "A Crime," a minor-key ballad with a swiftly moving undercurrent, accompanying herself on guitar while her bandmates stand silent to either side, her voice caroming out over a sweaty assembly that seems to double in number every few minutes.
Not far from the galvanized metal gates that separate crowd from stage stands a young woman. Like many in attendance, she's attempting to offset the brutal heat by wearing as little as possible, and so, when Van Etten finally hits the higher, even more lonesome notes of the song's chorus — never let myself love like that again — anyone standing nearby can see this woman's back, from nape to small, instantly turn to gooseflesh, improbable as an ice-clad locomotive blizzarding through the scorched dust of Bonnaroo loaded down with Rocky Mountain beer.
For most of the set's remainder, Van Etten employs a simple, utterly effective template: a vertebral column of drums, bass and guitar, given ghostly flesh with her singular vocals. It is more than enough to monopolize the otherwise wandering attentions of a crowd that is surrounded on all sides by the assaultive allure of lasers, drugs, glow sticks, variously fried concessions and face-shaking bass blasts.
"For Epic, I knew I wanted the bare minimum," Van Etten says, talking now over a squelchy cell phone signal in the back of her tour van, as it makes the long, flat haul from Omaha to Iowa City. "This one I wanted to be more collaborative."
"This one" is Tramp, the album Van Etten recorded in Brooklyn with producer Aaron Dessner, who is also a member of the band The National, when gaps in their busy schedules overlapped. Along the way, they worked on nearly 30 songs, 12 of which made the final track list. Seeing in Dessner a kindred spirit with "a similar work ethic, a similar vision," Van Etten allowed herself to work in new and unexpected ways. For example, she didn't even know Dessner was rolling tape when she started experimenting with the rhythm settings on an old console organ. But what began as idle tapping soon became a beat, then a beat with a melody and, eventually, the song "Magic Chords" — a loping, almost jazzy shuffle unlike anything on her previous two records.
"We had the time to make mistakes," Van Etten says of the months-long recording process. And the humanness of erring is a central theme in her music — nowhere more explicitly than on "All I Can," a song at the album's center that builds the phrase "we all make mistakes" into a cathartic, majestically sad crescendo.
Top to bottom, Tramp is the most sophisticated recording of Van Etten's career. Still, the center that holds is her voice, an instrument that — as evidenced by the spontaneous epidermal reaction it triggered in Manchester — needs little more than the scaffolding of a few guitar chords to do its work. Like that midsummer Tennessee sun, it both radiates and extracts, piercing its listener while simultaneously pulling quarantined emotions to the surface. It is a voice both haunting and haunted.
"I hope it doesn't mess with my head too much," Van Etten says of the newfound success she attributes to constant touring. (She doesn't expect to be back home, save a few days here and there, until December.)
But she's in a good place. She has a new band — "It's nice to have people jumping around onstage" — and a new joke-grunge side project to help keep things loose. She's made peace, as much as one ever makes peace, with a troubled past. "I used to live in Murfreesboro, Tenn.," she told her audience at Bonnaroo through a sweetly tenuous smile, "and I am not ashamed."
For now, following a spate of national TV appearances, there is the road ahead, and the modulating thrill and boredom of touring life, where the crowds have steadily grown since Van Etten released her debut Because I Was in Love in relative obscurity three years ago, while she was working out of a New York apartment for a small independent record label to make ends meet.
"I've got a really good group of people around me right now," she says, sounding hopeful, content. "We're trying to pace ourselves."