By Gabriel Mathews
Walking into The Neptune, I decided it was Seattle’s answer to LA’s Fonda. Bizarre murals and really good sound, and expensive beer. Between sets, the entire place was bathed in green light.
I’ve been really into Jana Hunter’s band, Lower Dens, for a while now. For this tour, she was billed as “Jana Hunter (of Lower Dens),” implying that she wouldn’t be doing a the standard solo set one might expect from someone who once was a solo artist. And she didn’t, instead playing a bunch of new tracks from Lower Dens’ forthcoming third records. I can’t say I was thrilled by the material—it’s going in a significantly synthier direction than even 2012’s Nootropics, and many of the songs were reverbed to hell so I couldn’t even make out the notes. What’s more, she performed these tracks sitting down, with the backing tracks pumping out of a computer, making quite the testament to the power of a live band. Hunter closed her set with a cover of Hall & Oates’ “She’s A Maneater,” which was creepily groovy, but overall this set was pretty dull.
Not as dull, however, as Courtney Barnett’s set. I don’t know, maybe I’m just really not Barnett’s intended audience, but I could not for the life of me get into this music. I’ve only ever heard her excellent hit single “Avant Gardener,” which was the only song of the set I actually enjoyed. Other than that, Barnett and her band ran through about forty minutes of songs that all sounded exactly the same with their garagey shuffle. At least the girl three rows in front of me dancing like she was on acid seemed to be enjoying herself.
Sharon Van Etten and her five-piece band took the stage clad all in black, and I was super excited. Van Etten’s Tramp is by now a certifiable broken-hearted classic, and her preceding record, Epic, is also mind-blowing. Her brand new record, Are We There, is also good, but just doesn’t have the songs— you know, the “Love Mores” and “Give Outs” and “Asks” and “One Days” and “I’m Wrongs.” It’s a perfectly good record, but nothing on it sticks for me the way most of Tramp does.
In recent interviews, Van Etten has expressed an interest in distancing herself from that record, which she feels was a team effort that got attention for its many collaborators (Aaron Dessner, Matt Barrick, Julianna Barwick, Jenn Wasner) more than for her songs. I think she’s dead wrong, but apparently the self-produced Are We There is something of an attempt to reclaim her own music. So the night’s big question was really about the ratio of new songs to old ones. Sadly for me (and I think a lot of people) the scales were tipped severely in the “new” direction.
While Are We There highlights like “Break Me,” “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” and “You Know Me Well” were all really quite good, the only Tramp cut we got was a rushed “Serpents,” and the only Epic cut was “Don’t Do It.” (This was actually, I think, the highlight of the set for me; I’d never paid a lot of attention to this song on record, but the live rendition was easily the most rocking and interestingly arranged track of the bunch, with post-rock guitars layered over a looped vocal from the keyboardist.) I was severely disappointed. Tramp put Van Etten on the map, it’s filled with incredible songs, and we really wanted to hear them.
That said, I can understand not wanting to play those songs. Artists get asked all the time what it’s like to play songs about their personal tragedies night after night, and the question applies better to Sharon Van Etten than to most, as she bleeds herself dry in every song. Maybe she just can’t bring herself to play “Give Out” anymore. Maybe “Love More” hurts too much. I wouldn’t be surprised. This set really raised the question, though, of the degree to which musicians are beholden to their audiences. Is there an obligation to play your hits? How do you balance that with the desire to stick to your artistic guns, or just to move on?
Also, I have to acknowledge Van Etten’s fantastic stage presence. Like her buddies in The National, she balances the sadness of her music with a wacky, dry sense of humor that you really wouldn’t expect. She spent the entire night joking with the audience, calling out her band mates, and using the breaks between songs to excellent effect. When one guy called out “You’re weird!” Van Etten responded, “I am weird,” then proceeded to pantomime picking her nose and wiping it on her butt. During the utterly heartrending “Your Love Is Killing Me,” she pantomimed the chorus—“Break my legs so I can’t run to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” It didn’t undercut the song nearly as much as it enhanced it.
On top of being a real funny lady, Van Etten has incredible pipes. Even though I don’t love the songs she played as much as the ones she didn’t, I found myself getting the shivers several times just due to the sheer beauty of her voice. And for that I’m grateful.