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Live Review and Photos: Sharon Van Etten and The War On Drugs, March 20, 2012, The Avalon – Los Angeles, CA

If there was a lesson to be learned from Sharon Van Etten and The War On Drugs as they played nearly perfect sets at Los Angeles’ Avalon on Tuesday night, it was not to smoke. The War On Drugs’ frontman Adam Granduciel spoke of being four days free of cigarettes, noting that he is a bit on edge and citing South By Southwest and a recent flu as reasons for stopping. In Van Etten’s set, the singer introduced “Kevin’s” as being about quitting smoking, a task at which she admits to being sub-par at. But, both artists were hardly in the role of public servants on this evening, they were merely dedicated to provide a stellar evening of original tunes that lean on traditional rock and roll and offer fresh perspectives, proving that familiar mediums still have new joys to reveal, even in 2012.

Despite roots that go back to 2005 (and former bandmate Kurt Vile), The War On Drugs have received a ton more attention since releasing last year’s universally adored Slave Ambient. And, though they are providing support for this tour, the band was given a full hour to make an impression on the audience, many of whom might have been less familiar with their work. The band made it easy on them, delivering standout “Baby Missiles” as their second song and keeping the tempo up throughout their performance. And where their brand (which has accurately been described as “Boss-wave”) of music may seem instantly familiar, the band utilizes all four members to create noisy sonic soundscapes, mixing in trumpet and harmonica not for solos, but for texture. Indeed, backing members David Hartley, Robbie Bennett, and Steven Urgo were hardworking throughout, and the audience was rewarded with music that both challenged and rejuvenated, acting as a palette cleanser for a crowd used to far more vanilla of flavors.

Holding the set together was the banter Granduciel, who was jovial and sharp (despite his nicotine craving), asking the audience if they were at South By Southwest before declaring the festival a shit-show. And, though their cool quotient was already high by the end of the set, the band closed with “Brothers” featuring guest Alex Bleeker from Real Estate on guitar. It is not often that openers get such high profile guests, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary for The War On Drugs. Basically, Los Angeles, was treated to a second headliner who performed with swagger and immediacy, setting the bar high for Sharon Van Etten.

Sharon Van Etten’s recent album, Tramp, is arguably her finest yet, and to hear her focus her set on this material was a joy. Though there was some level issues early on “Warsaw,” the show really got going with an impassioned version of “Kevin’s” and a bouncing and fun rendition of “Magic Chords,” which saw Van Etten do a little dance and admit that she almost didn’t put the song on the album. Van Etten’s candid nature in her stage banter was refreshing, in which she tried to acknowledge calls from the audience and handled a few over-bearing fans with appreciation and grace. Her song introductions went from being obvious (“Give Out” is about New York) to touching (“this song is about you” for “Love More”). But, while Van Etten claims to be awkward, her self-conscious approach to performing almost cancels this out, providing an experience that is as real as you get when a stage is involved.

Musically, Van Etten’s four-pice backing suits the new material beautifully. Some songs, like “Serpents,” serve as bonafide rock anthems, while “I’m Wrong” builds layers of textures that takes the song to new heights not seen on the record. And where the backing music is tight, Van Etten’s vocals soar, making the most difficult of notes seem an ease.

There is something to be said for performances that involve crazy light shows or visual displays (though, it must be said that Van Etten did gave some cool projections backing her), but the strength of material being presented ultimately makes for the most enjoyable of live experiences. And, with Tramp, Van Etten holds a deck full of trump cards that take her far beyond being a typical singer and songwriter. For her encore, she went for the throat with a gigantic version of “All I Can” and a slowly-building, utterly beautiful “Love More.” These are timeless tunes that any audience should feel lucky to hear performed from an artist possibly at her peak.

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