The heat wave that had been smothering the country all week was still refusing to budge when “The Wild Hearts Tour” kicked off Thursday (July 21st) at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia (get tickets here). A tote bag at the merch stand read, “I went to ‘The Wild Hearts Tour’ and all I got was emotional,” the unofficial mission statement of the triple bill.
“This is my summer camp,” Angel Olsen told the audience during her nine-song set later in the night. The tour featuring Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and Julien Baker will continue to cross the country this summer at a COVID-safe series of outdoor venues: three singer-songwriters at the top of their respective games, who are also just three friends who will return to the same tour bus every night, creating a shared experience during what will be the coldest summer of the rest of their lives.
The sun was setting as Julien Baker took the west-facing stage; had she gone on even a few minutes earlier, it would have shone directly in her eyes. Even under the airy wooden rafters of Wolf Trap’s open-air and seated Filene Center it was tough to find a breeze. Undaunted by the sea of sweaty faces in the audience, Baker purposefully dove right into a full-throated version of a sparsely-instrumented song, the title track to her 2015 album Sprained Ankle.
Baker is a consummate and polished professional, even while delivering songs about the chaotic forces of addiction and poor mental health. She was the first artist on the bill — but not the last — to inform the audience that the schedule for her set was tight. Wolf Trap is run by the National Park Service, and it seemed like a stern park ranger or two had put the fear of God in all three of them: Wrap by 11, or else.
Baker charged through “Bloodshot,” from 2021’s Little Oblivions — her third LP and her first full-band album. She seemed a little harried as she unstrapped her guitar and moved across the stage to take her place behind the keyboard, even as the ambient temperature finally started to drop by maybe one degree. After playing standalone single “Tokyo,” Baker took a measured approach to Little Oblivions tracks “Favor” and “Relative Fiction.”
“Faith Healer” and “Hardline,” though, were where she left nothing on the table — pushing through crescendos, opening her mouth as wide as it would go. She chased them with the powerful, cacophonous finale of “Ziptie” before waving herself offstage, right on schedule.
Audience members were still finding their seats throughout Baker’s set, giving it the feel of an opener. Twenty minutes later, when Angel Olsen took the stage in a bright yellow jumpsuit, it was dark enough to feel like primetime. “Dream Thing,” from the newly-released Big Time, eased the audience into an Olsen sound that is more rife with country influences than ever before. With six other people onstage, the cumulative effect was full-bodied and lush; it sounded like summer.
Olsen seemed like she was getting back on a familiar horse after three years away. “I know it’s hot, but we love you. Our love goes out to you,” she said, greeting the audience after wrapping “Dream Thing.” “It’s a beautiful space, oh my God,” she added of the wooden amphitheater. The jubilant “Big Time” carried the audience further into the world of her newest release as she strummed rhythm guitar, planted behind her mic front-and-center on the stage.
“Ghost On,” about Olsen’s first queer relationship during the pandemic, got a beautiful and haunting rendition — “When should I believe the things you say? You change your mind from day to day,” she sang. It’s a song with a sharp edge, but it felt like some of the sting had been removed for Olsen through the process of writing it. The whisper of a breeze wafted through as the closing notes drifted out into the audience.
“I’m going to play a new song I wrote last night — it’s a banger, man! This is a special song about shutting up and getting real close to someone’s face,” she said before launching into “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a track from 2016’s My Woman that she had most definitely not written the night before. It’s Olsen’s most popular song, and it felt like being greeted by an old friend.
Although Olsen has embraced more optimistic, major-key rock and country on 2016’s My Woman and Big Time, she can snap quickly back to the eerie otherworldliness that inhabited her earliest releases and 2019’s All Mirrors. “Through the Fires” is her newest addition in this particular vein, and she pulled the audience into another realm for a few minutes through low, mellow piano chords, drums that built in a slow burn, and the ethereality of her voice.
Olsen and her band were clearly struggling with the heat, and she re-tuned her guitar between each song. “I know it’s hot and you’re all sitting down and it’s low energy,” she said to the crowd, although a handful of people had stood up throughout the song to sway their bodies as though no one was watching. The rest of the audience joined them a few moments later to stand and applaud after the last closing notes of “All the Good Times.”
Olsen left the stage, and the house lights came up during another 20-minute break between sets. When they dimmed again, Van Etten strode to the front of the house, positioning herself centerstage before the opening notes of “Headspace” churned out of the amps.
Van Etten is a powerfully dynamic performer, and it felt like the thing we didn’t know we had been waiting for all night. She eschewed the guitar for the first three songs of her set, stalking the stage with a microphone and using her voice and body as her instrument. She gripped the mic with one hand while playfully wiping sweat from her guitarist’s face with the other before turning back toward the audience for “No One’s Easy to Love,” from 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow.
After “Anything,” on which she resumed playing guitar, Van Etten gave some shout-outs — to her “Jersey high school crew,” which drew cheers from the crowd, and her Uncle Stan, who was also in the audience. Van Etten shared that Vienna held a hallowed place in her family’s history: Her grandparents lived there before their deaths and are both now buried in Arlington National Cemetery. “We dedicate the rest of this set to Florence and Stan,” she said, with the disarming charm that hallmarks her live performances.
In the time since her quiet and tentative 2009 DIY debut, Van Etten has come into her own as a full-fledged rock star, and it’s one of the most empowering and satisfying evolutions in music today. Her setlist drew from 2022’s We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, her sixth studio album, for four of its songs — the first time she had played them to a live audience. She reached farther back in her catalog with “Serpents,” the muscular, swift and savage track about a former abusive partner from 2012’s Tramp, as well as a playful, harder rock version of the easygoing “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” from 2014’s Are We There, which got a few more audience members moving and out of their seats.
Hearing artists play with form like this is one of the highlights of any live show, and it was a little disappointing that the night’s tightly coordinated schedule didn’t allow for more of it. Van Etten followed with “Mistakes,” telling the audience, “This is the permission I’m giving you right now to be a bad dancer with me. If anyone knows Elaine Benes, you know what I’m saying.” She closed with a powerful and locked-in rendition of “Seventeen,” a love song to a former self.
After Van Etten left the stage, the audience had a pretty good idea of what was coming next, but they good-naturedly cheered and applauded to the empty stage anyway. Sure enough, Van Etten came back out a few moments later, followed by Olsen. The two launched into their tender and bombastic joint single from 2021, “Like I Used To,” a song that perfectly encapsulates what Olsen and Van Etten have prioritized exploring in their most recent work: communing and reckoning with a past self across time, tenderly integrating all the people you used to be into the present. (In a short film released earlier this year in conjunction with Big Time, Olsen gently drowns a version of her past self in a bathtub.)