Sharon Van Etten has made palpable strides in the past few years to be, for lack of a better term, more optimistic. Her early recordings are about as forlorn as they come; by comparison, there is much satisfaction and even joy to be heard on her recent effort, “Tramp.” If the point needed clarification, Van Etten and her backing band rolled out her quintessential heartbreaker, “Save Yourself,” but played it upbeat at the Bluebird Theater on Wednesday. Singing lyrics like “There’s nothing left to sell me, I’m broke,” Van Etten and her group put rhythm below it, transforming mournfulness into rock ‘n roll.
The fuss about Van Etten boils down to her pipes, a Brobdingnagian force housed in a Lilliputian frame. It’s not nature vs. nurture with Van Etten, but rather a mighty combination of stellar genes and harrowing experiences that inform one true voice. There’s a worn, huskiness to her breathy singing. Sultriness, too. When playing “Kevin’s” last night, she was potency realized, as if bottling despair and envy into a tiny bottle of 5-Hour Energy.
Earlier, Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs was far more opaque, yet just as effective. The group often chose to muddy its recorded time signatures and frontman Adam Granduciel rolled out the lyrics in unfamiliar doses, as Bob Dylan has famously done in concert for years. Dare it be said, the War on Drugs has a better handle on this technique, playing much of last year’s great “Slave Ambient” from “Best Night” on.
The quartet basked in the dark glow of blue and red lights, much in the same vein as the foggy cover art for “Ambient.” A suitable analogy for the affair, the War on Drugs embraced the nebulous moments, sometimes jamming into the space between delineated tunes more splendidly than the proper songs, themselves. (After last night, it’d be hard not to be convinced that the name of the band’s most recent record is a tongue-in-cheek affront to music critics who used the A-word too often to describe its tunes.) In the same order as on “Ambient” — but in a live style all its own — the band progressed through the road-ready “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” into the trumpet-based drone of “The Animator” before cycling through the Mellencamp-esque “Come to the City.” Shoegaze, 1980s heartland rock and psychedelic jams were all there. It was tough to see, but certainly not to hear.
Lisa Higginbotham is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.