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No photos for this one, but a concert writeup anyway.

February 14th can be annoying. So contrary to the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I spent the best part of my day listening to words about failed relationships, suicide and depression. But it’s not what it sounds like at all – such perceived negativity came from beautiful phrases that filled the air alongside poignant music. It was Sharon Van Etten‘s appearance at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

The evening began with an opening group called Shearwater, a band that I hadn’t really noticed before. It didn’t take very long to realize that I had been missing out. Their lively rock managed to blend the more pop-oriented versions of Sonic Youth’s noise with the pastoral reflections of Talk Talk. Moments of shimmering guitar beauty were balanced very nicely with swirling feedback and pure noise. Curiously, their work may have stolen some thunder from the main act – Shearwater’s music was louder, more aggressive, and more dancable. In fact, their new release Animal Joy may merit future listening, based only on the live sampling I got. After Shearwater played an encore and a brief break for stage setup, the crowd was ready for the headliner.

Sharon Van Etten’s set began with a slightly more difficult start, but gained steam as the night continued. Sharon was chatty and almost bubbly between songs, and she seemed genuinely pleased to be performing and sharing the stage with her band. Particularly early on in the performance, she noted that her touring band was fairly new and they were still working out the kinks. Luckily, the actual playing was never in question; simply the mechanics of getting a song started were a bit rusty.

For the uninitiated, Van Etten’s voice is the centerpiece on her records, and the same held true with this performance. Acoustic guitars and careful layering of electrics allow her beautiful human instrument to pierce through. And pierce is certainly the best way to describe its power. From the most quiet of coos to the power of her phrasing, Sharon Van Etten’s songs excel because her voice  is able to impart such electrifying emotion and urgency. You can feel the strain in her throat and it’s just as mesmerizing on stage as in headphones.

The highlight of the night was a jaw-dropping rendition of Van Etten’s “Don’t Do It,” a song that I had previously praised as the best of 2010. After a brief introduction to the song (some joking about the irony of playing the negatively titled song “I figured I would do it… you know, ‘Don’t Do It’ but do it”), it kicked off with haunting guitars and ghostly vocal manipulation by one of the other band members. The entire performance space was enveloped by the sound, the pained cries and the soothing reassurance of Van Etten’s words. Quite simply, it was one of the most cathartic live music experiences I’ve ever had.

Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater formed a great concert pair and were well worth the price of admission. Strong musical ability, entertaining compositions and very personable banter with an excellent crowd made this a great show at an impressive venue. Keep an eye out for both of these acts – even as they seem poised for commercial breakthrough, they’re already very impressive right now.

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