Sharon Van Etten, who has been touring in support of her latest album Tramp since February, noted how difficult it is to play the same songs nearly every night for six months. However, her music betrayed no road-weariness, even on songs like the opener “Don’t Do It” from her previous release, Epic, which sounded fresh thanks to slight tweaks in her vocal harmonies with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Heather Woods Broderick.
Van Etten and Broderick’s ability to stretch notes to their maximum heart-busting potency was at the forefront of every song, with solid rhythmic backing in service. On the lilting “All I Can,” Hammond organ and stately acoustic guitar swirled around their harmony to its apex at the line “I want my scars to help/And heal.” When the boom from Zeek Hutchins’ floor tom rumbled in the next measure, the slow build of Van Etten’s song craft was in full flower.
The four-piece band’s versatility executed the intricate arrangements from Tramp expertly, with bass player Doug Keith playing guitar and the Keshav harmonium, while Woods Broderick held down keys and built vocal loops. “Magic Chords” featured Van Etten strumming her hand over the sensor of an Omnichord electric autoharp.
When Van Etten was first gaining recognition for her music from the likes of Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National (who also produced Tramp), and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, she was forced to overcome stage fright common among intensely personal singer-songwriters. But to see the rapport that she built with the Helsinki crowd, one would never have known. She rained a full clip of quips on the audience between songs, slyly remarking that tunes, which explicitly deal with abusive relationships or love lost, were actually about cake or pasta.
At one point her band exited the stage leaving her under a lone spotlight. “Do you guys want to hear a downer?” she asked. To which the audience cheered, pleased to be feeling all their feelings. “I guess they’re all downers.” She jests, but the humor arises from truth.
While the majority of her songwriting deals with the excruciating pain of love, it’s never with a defeated air or passivity, nor with cliché or cloying romanticism. When she steps to the microphone, she is a woman in control of her experience, willing to take the risk of pain for love and able to articulate honestly. As her encore and closing argument, Van Etten performed “Love More” from Epic. Squeezing air through the reeds of the harmonium and singing in her signature mourning-dove falsetto, she left the audience with the incantation, “It made me love . . . it made me love . . . it made me love . . . more.”
While the bathrooms in Club Helsinki, with mysterious black holes in the concrete and plaster reliefs of human bodies imbedded into the wall, are decidedly Lynchian, the tones that opener Otto Hauser (Vetiver drummer and Hudson resident) created with his semi-hollow-body guitar recalled Jim Jarmusch. Like Neil Young’s soundtrack for Dead Man, Hauser shook the small stage and barroom of Helsinki with feedback and distorted drones. Punctuating the white noise, simple chord progressions and melodic figures briefly grounded the arrangements until a searing lick of feedback burned like the cherry at the end of a cigarette and left only smoke.