Two ladies. Two crystalline, pure voices. One acoustic guitar, one electric. The quiet, candlelit confines of Joe’s Pub rumbling every few minutes as subway trains pass beneath the venue. This was the setting for Meg Baird and Sharon Van Etten’s Friday night engagement. While the subway claimed the low end and the venue offered a dim, lounge-y vibe, Baird and Van Etten dominated the high registers and offered up bright, moving sounds.
Baird, a member of Philadelphia folk rockers Espers when not performing on her own, was the first to perch on the stage’s stool and display her talents. Talking very little between songs, she offered a mix of traditional and original folk songs, deftly plucking her acoustic strings and singing in a smooth, timeless tenor. She steered away from tunes from 2007’s terrific Dear Companion, but treated the crowd to equally satisfying material. Baird’s approach to folk is somewhere between Appalachian traditions and the roaming English folk of Anne Briggs and Sandy Denny. This leaves her hovering somewhere over the Atlantic, and such territory seems appropriate for the expansive, blue-sky aura of her music. Steady and composed throughout her set, she seemed to channel the deep knowledge and well-worn comfort of the musical traditions that she has assumed.
Sharon Van Etten followed and brought a different but equally impressive approach. While Baird had lightly plucked her acoustic strings, Van Etten passionately strummed her electric guitar. Where Baird sang with a reserved, effortless beauty, Van Etten channeled heaps of emotion into her soaring voice. Her songs are simple in theory, but full of spirit and spunk when performed. Stopping a few times to tune and retune, she bantered and joked with the audience, displaying a humble but charismatic stage presence. Van Etten’s set included numerous songs from her recent debut, Because I Was In Love, but closed with the stellar “Damn Right,” which can be found on her self-released demo.
The thoroughly Manhattan vibe of Joe’s Pub was a strange place to witness this pair. Meg Baird’s songs would make more sense sitting on a log in a grassy mountain pasture. Sharon Van Etten’s music feels more at home in a no-frills Brooklyn bar, the type of place where one could often find her over the last few years. But both women are gaining momentum, and they excelled in the well-deserved spotlight of the city.
[Photo: Cat Stevens]