What we learned from Sharon Van Etten's guitar.
Someone once told me that women can’t connect to music as well as men can. This instigator — a good friend of mine — believed that women can play music and sing, but that compared side-by-side with a male musician, they’d invariably pale. Women, he said, lack something that is as indescribable as it is essential. Commitment? I asked. Passion? Soul? He couldn’t say.
Looking back, I think my friend was probably referring to was that one thing that makes any musician worth listening to: the ability to rock. Women could write songs, he thought, they would sing harmonies, they would play a damn good acoustic guitar show — but they were not wired to rock. They weren’t designed (or maybe they were just unwilling) to let loose, to forfeit all composure and tap in to something primal. They could not do guitar solos or headbang.
I’m sorry to say that at the time, I might have believed it. I might have bought in to the sex differential of rock and roll — except last Thursday I saw Sharon Van Etten play a show at Union Transfer.
The show began, quite literally, with a bang. As Sharon walked out on stage, someone in the audience shrieked in their excitement, and she returned the gesture, “AAAAAAAHHH! Sometimes it’s fun to scream for no reason.” Sharon let out another crazed noise, inciting laughter from the audience. “What am I doiiiiing here!”
Van Etten, the Brooklyn-based songstress who recorded her latest album Tramp while essentially homeless, stood on stage, dressed simply in Levis, black heels, and a cherry red top to match her electric guitar (“Do you guys remember Ruby? She’s a slut,” she asked the audience). There was a mischievous smile on her face, as if she was about to tell a joke or had sweet-talked her way into some place she shouldn’t have. For the band’s first song, Sharon seemed calm and collected. She counted down to the first beat in a whisper with her keyboardist, Heather Woods Broderick. The two women faced each other, and then struck the concert’s opening notes together. Sharon did not take her eyes off Heather.
When the song ended the audience burst into applause. It was the kind of concert where everyone claps after every song — the best kind. Respects were being paid. Yet Sharon seemed to shirk any notions of professionalism, unafraid to enlist the help of drummer Zeke Hutchins and bassist Doug Keith on the opening chords for certain songs. “You know how much of a professional I am?” she teased as she tweaked with her guitar strings in between songs. “I’m such a professional, I forgot my tuner.”
If Sharon is, as she proclaimed, an amateur, her musical fluency betrayed her. With only one rough start (which she laughed off by announcing “We’re gonna play a song, I promise! We played a lot of them in a row just now”), her command of the guitar was impressive. As her fingers flew across Ruby’s fretboard, there was an ostensible disconnect between her technical skill and her body language, which was composed, focused. Sharon might not have known it, but she was rocking.
In perhaps the most touching point of the concert, Sharon’s bandmates left the stage so that she could play a song for her dad in the audience. “Dad, I didn’t get to hang out with you on Father’s Day. Is there a song you want me to play right now?”
From somewhere in the crowd, her dad replied, “Have you practiced ‘Tell Me’ at all?”
“‘Tell Me’?” Sharon repeated in disbelief, “I can’t believe you asked me to play ‘Tell Me’!” Over the audience’s giggles, she delights, “I’ll play that for you, Dad.” She seemed completely in her element.
Towards the end of the set, the band played what was by far the most rock-influenced song, “Serpents”. It began with a disorienting electrical surge emitted from Keith’s guitar, one that lasted much longer than expected. Sharon’s lines were raw and unapologetic, “You enjoy sucking on dreams / So I will fall asleep / With someone other than you”. The result was visually and emotionally arresting. Gone was her composure. Sharon was literally — physically — rocking with her guitar.
I was blown away. Before the show, I had admired Sharon’s success. I looked up to her as a delegate sent to remind us that women can make it, in the music world or elsewhere. But I’d been wrong. Sharon didn’t care about being a professional. She was on stage because of her music — her ability and willingness to connect with her emotions, no matter how dark or scary or angry.
Someone from the audience asked Sharon if her alter-ego is Van Halen. “Yes. Van Halen is my alter-ego,” she replied.
Maybe, Sharon. But we know you do it harder.