Sharon Van Etten live in London
- By Jack Preston -
- May 21, 2012
With the release of her third album, ‘Tramp’, earning a string of glowing reviews earlier this year, an impressive live reputation and a list of collaborators good enough to inspire an indie wet dream (The National, Beirut, The Walkmen) it’s a wonder why Sharon Van Etten isn’t a bigger force in the New York indie scene where she currently resides.
There must be some explanation, I thought to myself as I stood in London’s sizeable, yet intimate Scala waiting for her appearance. Maybe it’s all a myth, a rash exaggeration I told myself. I had a sneaking feeling that Van Etten wasn't going to be able to clear the high hurdles laid out in front of her on the first night of her European tour. How wrong I was.
The moment she stepped out on stage and up to the mic, there was a warm honesty that played beautifully against the backdrop her reflective, regretful and at times downright pissed off collection of songs. “I can’t believe a load of somebodies like you guys came to see a bunch of nobodies like us,” confessed the Brooklyn singer. Throughout the night her utterances never felt like the sort of empty lines that musicians can fall back on to punctuate a set of songs, there was a genuine quality that ran through her near faultless set.
Contending with an apparent insecurity while stomping out short blasts such as ‘Serpents’ – “I wrote this after getting really fucking angry and listening to lots of PJ Harvey” and beautifully hearfelt confessions like ‘Give Out’ is a trick many would have failed to pull off.
However the real surprise of the evening was how clean Van Etten’s sound was, with a refreshing clarity and intent laying behind everything she did. “I’ve never actually had anyone tune my guitars for me before, this means I don’t have to bore you with any silly talk,” explained the mischievous New Yorker.
While her stage hands did an undoubtedly fine job of preparing the instruments, they were thankfully unable to prevent the outpouring of amusing babble coming from the singer’s mouth. “It’s like she’s being scripted by Diablo Cody,” noted a friend, as the room filled with laughter as Van Etten produced David Brent impressions in between pretending to fire her band and recounting talks with her Dad – “Sharon, do you ever change the words to food types when you’re getting bored on stage?”
The endearing appeal of her dorkish sense of humour was to be found in the distance it put between herself and close collaborators. While the likes of Zach Condon, Aaron Dessner and Matt Barrick are undoubtedly very talented musicians, their ruffled hair, wine sipping, shabbily-suited on stage personas can somewhat grate. Whereas Van Etten’s gripping mid-performance intent, is left to fall gracefully by the wayside as her songs subside.
A show heavily dominated by tracks from latest release Tramp was interrupted as a request from the audience, for old favourite ‘Tornado’, resulted in the band momentarily leaving the stage, allowing Van Etten to play out a beautifully chilling rendition. A high point of the evening that almost evoked a tinge of regret as the band returned to help close out the set.
The encore, which was bizarrely accompanied by a drunken brawl in the audience, saw Van Etten allow earlier, folk leanings to take over as ‘One Day’ and ‘Love More’ washed over the venue and off into the night. A stunning performance.