Published by JB on October 15, 2014
A budding superstar like Sharon Van Etten, even in her most humble moments, has to scratch her head at the hills and valleys of worldwide touring. Moving from venues such as Minneapolis’s iconic First Avenue Club to appearances on Letterman and Kimmel, Van Etten has found herself on this perfect Halloween-like night in the drinking capitol of the midwest; a corner pub named Gabe’s in downtown Iowa City.
It’s a club that looks like it’s three days away from needing Dr. Kevorkian. A two-foot high stage stands above a modest room that appears as if it was last cleaned in the 60’s, remodeled in the 50’s and built during prohibition out of spite. The red and blue stage lights scream of 1972. Even the moments of brief relief are breath-holding: the men’s bathroom looks like something from Abu Ghraib. You fear of sticking to everything you touch. It’s one of those WTF moments that a venue like this attracts something as great as Ms. Van Etten. Kudos to the peep in Iowa City who paid off the tour manager to bring this to us.
So what you lose in cleanliness you get to make up for in intimacy. I was at that aforementioned First Avenue performance. Where that show brought the best musical shade that Van Etten can deliver, the Gabe’s performance saw her tough and gritty side. Chiming in between songs about the loss of intimacy that the insistent cell phone users were causing at the show, Van Etten left no doubts who was in charge of the stage or the venue on this night. She had a bad day and we were here relief. Effortlessly moving between instruments onstage, Van Etten delivered the 15-song performance in front of 275 thrilled fans. It was a up close perspective that many of the 1500 at First Avenue even couldn’t see. For once, living in Iowa had a perk besides lower prices on bacon and pork chops.
Musically, Van Etten is quirky, yet dazzling wonder. In Minneapolis and on TV she showed the elegance of a Florence Welch or a Natalie Merchant. In Iowa City you would think she was like Courtney Love in her prime. This emotional versatility translates back to Van Etten’s albums, including the stellar 2014 release, Are We There. One minute you’re transfixed from her Cat Power-style approach and the next minute you’re playing air guitar while she sings in the foreground.
Long after you survive the bathrooms and the creepy scents of former college undergrads brought to their knees – what you have at Gabes is that infrequent diamond in the rough performance. Van Etten shined and she became the best $15 you could spend in 2014. I can’t decide if the tour manager should be fired or run for president.