When I walked into Union Transfer on November 7th, it reeked of adulthood—overpriced IPAs, musky cologne, and menthol cigarettes. This, I decided, meant that Sharon Van Etten didn’t fuck around. Her fanbase was full of dads who wears leather jackets on the weekend and middle–aged women with subtle tattoos. Clearly, life experience was a prerequisite for liking Sharon Van Etten and her brand of deep rock, and I was hopelessly short on that.
Little did I know, I would be proved wrong. You don’t need to be a hardened 30–something year old to “get” Van Etten. All you need is an open mind.
Nilüfer Yanya primed the audience for Van Etten, bathing us in an unbothered aura. The 22 year old Brit meshes a secret obsession with Top 40 pop hits and an unbounded love for British indie rockers, like the Libertines, to create music that sounds like it should Yanya’s voice feels easy on songs like “Thanks 4 Nothing” and “In Your Head,” bringing a lightness to the heavy guitars that grounded the set.
And then Sharon Van Etten hit the stage with unrivaled intensity. She exploded with “Comeback Kid,” her tunnel–vision focus on the audience adding depth to a song that It set the pace for the rest of the set. Van Etten was ferocious and omnipotent. Her presence covered every square inch of the standing room–only space, yet she was small and grateful, speaking only to thank those who made her—her mother, her partner, and her fans.
“It feels like we have so many friends in here already,” Van Etten said to the crowd while changing guitars. And it’s true. The space was sparse, filled only with the essential instruments and band members, peeling the spectacle away from rock. This, I believe, is who Van Etten is when she’s living the rest of her —when she’s picking up her son’s toys, memorizing flashcards, or running lines. Van Etten is a casual kind of rock and roll, the kind we’re not used to at concerts with electric guitars. She was self–assured, smoothly confident and vulnerable, showcasing what the audience really wants—the music, and not much else.
Van Etten delivered, transitioning from Remind Me Tomorrow’s endemic sonic dissonance to soft moments full of the lush acoustics that made us fall in love with her in the first place. “No One’s Easy to Love,” a heavy near–ballad with a pounding baseline, faded seamlessly into songs like “Tarifa,” which slow–burns like a late summer sunset. Van Etten’s awareness—of both herself and the audience—differentiates her from the legions we celebrate. Van Etten reimagined the landscape of rock music, creating a space where every note is equally cathartic for herself and her fans.
That being said, the set found its groove in the second half, beginning with a solo Van Etten sat a piano. She speeds into a hauntingly beautiful version of “Malibu,” the most classic Van Etten song on Remind Me Tomorrow. It created a rare moment of silence for the audience, and for brief second, I felt like I traversed somewhere too personal, walking in on Van Etten when she was most exposed.
She then launched into a piano cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a song that sounds like it could slot into Van Etten’s discography. Her voice echoed and twanged, invoking an incantation. In other words, when Van Etten says, “If they hated me, they will hate you,” it singes.
Van Etten followed up with “Seventeen,” and suddenly everyone—even the pot–bellied grandfather next to me—wanted to dance. Van Etten and her contagiously nostalgic energy trapped us in a time machine. Suddenly we were all seventeen again, hopeful and uninhabited and happy enough to tap our feet to the beat, even if we were on the wrong one. “Seventeen” closed the distance between me and my surroundings. No longer did I feel like a child who left the kid’s table too early. I felt like I had lived through something, and I had just as much skin in the game as the people next to me.
Ultimately, you don’t need to be 45 and one missed vacation day away from a mid–life crisis to feel welcome at a Sharon Van Etten concert. You just need room to grow.