Sharon Van Etten performs at Wolf Trap on July 21, 2022. (Photos by Ari Strauss)
Toward the beginning of her set at Wolf Trap Thursday evening, Angel Olsen told the audience, “I know it’s hot, but we love you.”
Later, she remarked, “This heat makes me feel out of tune.” Even though it had rained earlier, the evening of July 21 was still uncomfortably warm at Wolf Trap even as the sun was setting. For those of us in the audience, it wasn’t so bad — though you definitely needed a good amount of water to make it through the show — but I can only imagine what it was like on stage, underneath the bright, intense lights.
With the opener, Quinn Christopherson, taking the stage early, and three acts following him until the park closed at 11pm, it was a lot to fit in. That might normally feel bit cramped and rushed, but with the summer heat reaching its peak, I was glad that the performers each had a limited time on stage. It was a mercy. The heat makes it harder to focus, so the shorter sets were not, all things considered, a negative.
That said, Julien Baker, Angel Olsen, and Sharon Van Etten are three of the most exciting singer-songwriters on the scene today. They span two generations; Van Etten, who is 41, released her debut LP, Because I Was In Love, in 2009. Julien Baker, who is 15 years younger, put out her first album, Sprained Ankle, recorded while she was an 18-year-old freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, in 2015,. At 35, Olsen falls between the others; her debut EP, Strange Cacti, appeared in 2011. All three make music that sits at the intersection of folk and alternative rock singer-songwriters, but each has a distinctive sound and style, so there was plenty of variety in this show.
Quinn Christopherson, a Native Alaskan singer-songwriter of Athabascan and Iñupiat heritage, won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2019 with his song “Erase Me,” about coming out as a transgender man. Accompanied by a guitarist who also sang back vocals, Quinn shared a few songs — he only had about 20 minutes on stage — including the prize-winner, “I Am Bubblegum,” and “Evelene.” That last one, he mentioned, is about his mom, and it’s one she likes.
Watch an official visualizer for “Evelene” by Quinn Christopherson on YouTube:
Despite her young age, Memphis native Julien Baker has already released three albums. In addition to her debut LP, she’s released 2017’s Turn Out The Lights and last year’s Little Oblivions, and she just published an EP, B-Sides. She’s also a member of the supergroup Boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Daucus; they released a self-titled EP in 2018.
With 40 minutes for her set, there wasn’t time for much banter, and Julien stayed focused on the songs, beginning with the title track from her debut, then moved on to more recent material. “Relative Fiction,” “Bloodshot,” “Faith Healer,” “Hardline,” “Ringside,” and “Favor,” all appeared on Little Oblivions, as did her closing number, “Ziptie.” The lone remaining number in her set, “Tokyo,” came out as a standalone single in 2019.
Watch Julien Baker perform “Favor” live at Third Man Records in Nashville on YouTube:
Before emerging as an artist in her own right, St. Louis native Angel Olsen sang backing vocals for alt-country stalwart and Kentucky native Will Oldham. Like Baker, she is a lesbian, and her latest album, Big Time, deals with coming out and the grief of losing both parents in a relatively short time. While much of her material can be classified as “alt-country” or “Americana,” Big Time is her most country record, complete with strings and pedal steel. Where Baker’s music featured searing, heavy guitar parts, Olsen’s music had a more laid-back vibe, with her crystalline vocals at the front of all the songs.
Olsen had more time, playing for about an hour, allowing her to go at a slower pace, and to ease the crowd between songs. Her midwestern demeanor came through in the banter she made while tuning between songs. She opened with a couple of her new songs, “Dream Thing” and “Big Time.” Switching from acoustic to electric for “Ghost On,” she said, “That’s right, she’s coming out to play.” Before playing “Right Now,” she took a swig of her water, telling the audience, “Water has changed my life, and we don’t have enough of it.”
The set turned to some of her material. “Shut Up Kiss Me,” she explained, is “about shutting and getting real close.” She introduced “Sister” as “another old one.” After “Go Home,” she once more addressed the audience, saying “Right here, right now, in this moment, I want to be with you.” She closed her set with “Through The Fires” and “All the Good Times.”
Watch the official music video for “All the Good Times” by Angel Olsen on YouTube:
Sharon Van Etten’s set marked another stylistic change, as the countrified sound of Olsen was replaced with synth-filled sounds that harkened back to the height of the ’80s. Her most recent album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, came out earlier this year; it deals with both the tumult of the times we live in as well as changes in her own life.
Between the release of 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow and this album, Sharon moved across the country and became a mother for the first time. She opened her set with a cut from the new album, “Headspace,” before turning to the previous album with “No One’s Easy To Live” and “Comeback Kid;” she later played “Hands” as well. The latter song was especially appropriate on that album, as it followed a five-year break between releases.
Sharon played some more new material, including “Anything” and “Come Back,” followed by the fan favorite “Every Time The Comes Sun Up,” which closes out her 2014 album Are We There. “Born,” another new song, employed a synth rhythm to simulate a heartbeat, and it deals with her having her first child. She closed the set with “Mistakes” and “Seventeen,” and was joined by Olsen on “Like I Used To” for her encore.
Watch the official music video for “Like I Used To” by Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen on YouTube:
Even with the heat, it was still a great night, and a great chance to see some of the best music being today. It’s rare you get to see so many top-flight artists at once.
Here is a photo of Quinn Christopherson, copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss!
Here are some photos of Julien Baker by Ari Strauss!
Here are some pictures of Angel Olsen by Ari Strauss.
And here are some photos of the amazing Sharon Van Etten by Ari Strauss!