“I can’t wait till we’re afraid of nothing/ I can’t wait till we hide from nothing” sang Sharon Van Etten during the opening minutes of her set at the 9:30 Club Tuesday night. But during the high points of her uneven but stately performance, it sounded like the wait was already over. She overflowed with bravery, channeling the learnings of years of tangling with her muse.
Focusing mainly on the songs from her new recording, “Are We There,” Van Etten led a sympathetic backing quartet through an hour-plus set that occasionally lurched but mostly percolated around her aching melodies.
Her latest songs explore the myriad ways the heart beckons — chiefly in love and attraction and longing — and on the whole are deeper and more assured than anything she has previously created.
While the musical settings laid out by bass, guitar, drums and keyboards (with Van Etten adding guitar or keyboards) were traditional, they were tastefully executed, occasionally evoking the swelling electro-folk arrangements favored by English singer-songwriter Beth Orton.
The musicians’ real triumph was sharpening the focus on Van Etten’s vocals. By turns forlorn, angry, despondent and hopeful, she has developed into one of indie rock’s most compelling singers.
For example, the gorgeous “Tarifa” missed the horn break that marks the recorded version, but Van Etten’s swooping vocal line more than compensated. On the country spook of “Give Out,” she burrowed around and behind the band until she’d squeezed everything she could out of the melody.
Van Etten and her keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick intertwined their vocals to dramatic effect at times, highlighting the shimmering harmony lines that underscore the best new songs. Though her latest record is her most cohesive artistic achievement, not every composition is up to the standard of “Tarifa,” and a couple of times, the band seemed to merely be trudging along.
Having evolved from a solo artist, Van Etten is accomplished at bantering with her audience, but Tuesday night that coffeehouse skill slowed the momentum of the set. While switching from keyboards to guitar and back again and chatting up the crowd, momentum from the previous song drained frustratingly away.
The evening’s best pacing actually came during the encore, and by the time the gorgeous “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” unfurled, Van Etten was soaring. “People say I’m a one-hit wonder/ But what happens when I have two?” she almost purred, teasing the build-up to the song’s luscious chorus. If she keeps creating songs with as much majestic heartache as that one packs, she’ll have a lot more than two hits on her hands — not to mention a consistent wave of momentum.
Foster is a freelance writer.