I first heard of Sharon Van Etten though a press-release, back in December. It was one of those moments where it became apparent this artist was going to be a regular feature on my MP3 player for the foreseeable future. Names dropped into that news item such as The Walkmen, Wye Oak and Beirut whet the appetite for the forthcoming album ‘Tramp’, which exceeded all expectations. So then… I guess the live show has a lot to live up to.
I regrettably missed the first support Marisa Anderson. Sharon described tonights billing as her ‘dream team’, happy that they could all be in the same city at the same time. Exitmusic are playing as I enter The Deaf Institute. The place is pretty much full already and I’m forced to observe from the back near the entrance. They remind me of Esben and The Witch or iLiKETRAiNS, the lead singer uncomfortably wails into her microphone, occasionally stuttering due to a cold, producing what sounds like a misfiring formula 1 engine. Recorded material is interesting enough to warrant further investigation, but the sound here tonight seems unbalanced in some way.
That’s certainly not the case with Sharon Van Etten. She’s comfortable and open onstage, endearing us to her further by talking at will between songs about random thoughts and observations that spring to mind. It’s not long before I develop a crush, she’s got tattoo’s and she plays guitar and everything.
Doug starts the set with a mouth organ. ‘All I can’ demonstrates Sharon’s emotional voice before the acoustic guitar comes in, with Heather on the synth. The lyrics are worth hearing and are easy to follow, mainly telling of human frailties and faltering or thriving relationships. The song builds impressively, widening the eyes and pinning back the ears.
The sound is flawless, ‘Warsaw’ ups the tempo with a rockier guitar and pounding beat. ‘Kevin’s’ produces the first spine-tingling moment of the night, apparently written while she had tried to quit smoking and has just ended a relationship. Someone in the crowd asks if she misses the cigarettes or the man the most. The Deaf Institute is at it’s best on occasions like these. The place is full, the band are relaxed, the crowd are completely silent when not applauding or laughing along with the banter. Everyone, bar none, is here for the right reasons.
Her “90’s song” ‘Don’t Do It’ from her EP ‘Epic’ produces another highlight. It’s getting rather emotional in here. The acoustic and slightly slower version of ‘Give Out’ brings a lump to the throat. It’s about falling in love and moving to New York. By the end, the girl next to me is crying. “I loosen my grip from my palm… put it on your knee”. Maybe I should just quote all the lyrics instead of writing this review. Stunning.
The band playfully rib each other before ‘Leonard’, appropriately lightening the mood before the optimistic and airy rendition. ‘Serpants’ is yet another highlight, heavier in construction with inventive vocal expression and a beautiful guitar arrangement.
‘I’m Wrong’ is sung while bathed in red lights. The lack of beat and a swirling guitar sound, created with a violin bow, disorientates and unsettles as if experiencing mixed emotion and paranoia. When the crescendo has died down, the lights turn blue and the mood is lifted by the refreshingly calming and minimal ‘Joke Or A Lie’.
For the encore, she hugs an omnichord to her chest to play ‘Magic Chords’. The playful beat leaves us on a positive note after a largely melancholy performance. The whole experience was emotionally charged in all the right places, Sharon is a master of translating her deepest emotions into songs that all can relate to and connect with. Her superb album is even better when experienced live, possibly due to the personal nature of her writing. Incredible and deeply touching.