From her albums it would be easy to imagine Sharon Van Etten too fragile to perform her emotionally fraught songs, her life simply too heavy get out from under. The queen of Brooklyn Americana slipped into our consciousness with ‘Tramp’ – a devastatingly raw swirl of bad relationships, panic attacks and trying to pull yourself to a normal life. Van Etten wasn’t playing a role, having become trapped in an abusive relationship. But the self-therapy – as she describes it – works.
Initially tonight she’s shy and uneasy, but nothing beyond expectations of someone that struggled with the sort of stage fright you get from a partner telling you you’re not good enough. But at no point do the nerves get the better of the music. Her rich, textured voice moves from brooding to soaring in a heartbeat throughout. Opener ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ is emotionally demanding right out the gates, all melancholic piano stabs and plucked guitars that build to a stirring crescendo, ready for the crunchier ‘Taking Chances’ to drive things home.
And then suddenly she’s out of her shell. “Hey! What are you doing here?” she exclaims, making a joke about the fact that it’s Thanksgiving and we’re with her and not our families. It turns out she has a goofy sense of humour, testing the microphone with a chant of “poop poop poop!” “It’s my normal soundcheck,” she claims, “but there’s not normally people around!” “You may have realised that I’m not funny,” she later deadpans, to another big laugh. To say people are onside is an understatement. There are people dancing on the mezzanine of St George’s Church. Dancing. To Sharon Van Etten.
Things alternate from epic to sludgy to delicate, and then thanks to a broken guitar string after too much rocking out, she’s solo for a track that didn’t make ‘Are We There’. Stripped-down though it is, she’s calmly drowning on a song which sounds like it would have been a highlight on any Americana LP this year. When she disappears off stage the crowd clap for so long it’s clear she has no options but to come back. It’s a hard-won encore, but worth the sore palms. ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ is one of the most tender moments of the night – “I know what a sanctuary is/Help me deserve you, sing me praise” perfectly suited to the setting.
St George’s Church, Thursday 27th November 2014
Words by Anthony Stranger
Photo by Jon Southcoasting