Lollapalooza 2012: Sharon Van Etten / by Doyle Armbrust

For music best-suited to under-the-covers, blinds-drawn listening, a live 3pm set in sun-drenched Grant Park is a formidable artistic hurdle. Not so for Brooklyn's Sharon Van Etten. Following a glowing delivery from London-born singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, and after somehow managing a sound check beneath the Black Angels psych-blowout across the way, Van Etten delivered one of Lollapalooza's most exquisite performances in recent history.

The first words from the stage? "My '90s dreams are coming true today."

Opening with "All I Can" off her 2012 release, Tramp, the languidly-pulsating organ and dreamy two-part mezzo harmonies gave way to the tune's thumping center, Van Etten's considerable vocal sustain evident from the launch. Next up, "Warsaw," with its alluringly asymmetric 5+3 bar intro, highlights the vocal technique that raises Van Etten above the millieu of autobiographically-driven singer-songwriters: an eliding diction as pure and pitch-perfect as it is bleary and rapturous. "Eeeyou" she sings at the top, sumptuously gliding down the word ("you") atop the percussive, persuasively loose-fitting rhythm guitar accompaniment. Even in the middle of the bright Chicago afternoon, the effect is blissful and disorienting.

For the buoyant "Leonard," Van Etten playfully skirts the regularity of the 6/8 meter, building ecstatic crescendos around the line "I am bad" and causing us to wonder if the sentiment is more wink than confession. "I wrote this song about someone who used to live in Chicago," she divulged from the stage. The presence of The National's Aaron Dessner, Tramp's producer, is perhaps most apparent here. Those of us that hold dear the sparing quality of Van Etten's 2009 debut, Because I Was In Love, can be grateful that Dessner's hand in elaborating her orchestrations here hasn't over-polished or overwhelmed the vivid emotional content.

"Kevin's" offered us a glimpse at Van Etten's disarmingly lovely upper vocal register, the genesis of each line suspending at the crest before alighting back on terra firma for the more damning portion of the lyric: "You…dig your own grave." The concentration between Van Etten and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick was palpable in preparation for the start, and Broderick's vocal accompaniment did not disappoint. Seamless were the two voices, visibly enrapturing the crowd deep into its outer boundary.

The saturated, bowed-guitar heartache of "I'm Wrong" brought with it the band at its most unrestrained, feedback interweaving with Van Etten's soaring cries and ushering in the unsettling narrative of "Love More." The lyric "You chained me like a dog," here guides in a sweeping, melismatic chorus that stands as one of the singer's most unforgettable. The bar has been raised, Lollapalooza. Adjust accordingly.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in the Time Out Chicago Audio File Blog on August 3rd, 2012