sharon van etten

Sharon Van Etten hails from New York and has been a respected, but little known, figure on the music scene since her debut album was released in 2009. However, the release of her acclaimed third album, “Tramp”, has really brought her to the attention of a much wider audience and she has received rave reviews and has been championed on various radio programmes. One of her songs has even covered by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National. So it is great to see her in Birmingham at one of her limited number of UK dates.

sharon van etten

First up tonight is Chris Tye, accompanying himself on guitar. Chris is a singer songwriter who has been around for a while and has supported many big acts. He has a clear voice that at times reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III. However, unlike Loudon, his songs all seem to be pretty serious (with subjects like divorce) and are similarly slow-paced. He also does an early David Bowie song, “Letter to Hermione”, which is, again, about love life problems.

sharon van etten

Sharon Van Etten is one of my own personal big discoveries of 2012 so far. I first heard her earlier this year on Tom Ravenscroft’s Radio 6 show. It was one of those occasions where I heard an artist and a song for the first time and thought, “wow”! I bought her new album the next day. While you might describe her as an indie-style, folky, singer songwriter with a band, her music doesn’t really fit into a category. At times you can hear echoes of some of the best female singer-songwriters in the music. I can definitely hear some KD Lang in there somewhere – maybe in the harmonies. It also has leanings towards ‘Americana’, but categorisation doesn’t really do justice to Van Etten’s originality or talent.

sharon van etten

Her music is intimate and emotional – and about relationships of course. US website NPR (National Public Radio) says “Her songs are heartfelt without being overly earnest; her poetry is plainspoken but not overt, and her elegant voice is wrapped in enough rasp and sorrow to keep from sounding too pure or confident.”

I have been looking forward to this gig for quite a while. However, it really turns out to be so much better than I had dared to expect. For a start, The Glee Club is a great place to see bands. It is small and intimate and the acoustics are great. This really suits artists like Sharon Van Etten.

sharon van etten

At the start of her set, Sharon nervously comes on stage with her three-piece band. She rather charmingly says hello to the audience, but seems overcome by shyness and stumbles over her introductory words. Lost for something to say, she is straight into the first song “All I Can”, from the new album. As the evening progresses she becomes more confidence and strikes up a banter and a real relationship with the audience. She laughs a lot and says her band think she is becoming a comedian – which is appropriate here, as the Glee Club is primarily a comedy club.
Most of the songs played are from the “Tramp” album. Her band are superb, extremely competent multi-instrumentalists, who skilfully provide the minimal backing needed for many of her songs, but then they are also capable of making a fantastic racket when needed. In particular, a young lady called Heather ends up playing just about every kind of strung or keyboard instrument and provides beautiful harmonies too.

sharon van etten

Halfway through the set, the band leaves the stage for Sharon to do a solo spot. She asks the audience if they have any requests for old songs from her back catalogue. Someone yells out “Tornado” (from her first album). She obliges, but decides she needs Heather back to provide harmony vocals and calls out for to come on stage. There are a few awkward, but rather enchanting, moments while she is uncertain if Heather can hear her backstage. Luckily Heather does and comes on to sing. That is part of the charm of Sharon’s gig. It isn’t slick like so many American artists, but it is rather fragile and is a genuine and personal performance with plenty of spontaneity. However, the musicianship never suffers and the songs are performed immaculately. In fact they sound better than on the actual studio album.

sharon van etten

A couple of highlights to mention. Towards the end of the show the band really gel together and ‘wig-out’ on “I’m Wrong”. This includes plenty of sonic improvisation, with the bowing of an electric guitar and drum sticks rubbed along cymbals, to great effect. By contrast, my favourite of Sharon’s songs, “Give Out”, is sparse and features Sharon on acoustic guitar, with low-key electric guitar and drum backing. Sharon introduces the song as “about moving to New York”. This beautiful love song has a breathy vocal and a gorgeous tune. She sings “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave”. This emotionally charged song makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. By the end of the song I was really dewy eyed and rather envious of the guy for whom she would move to the city. I think it had that effect on most of the audience too.

The show ends with an encore of two songs, including the splendid “Ask” from the new album. This has some great lines, including – “Let’s find something that will last. Like cigarette ash, the world is collapsing around me”. I think we can all empathise with that message.

chris tye

Set List: All I Can; Warsaw; Save Yourself; Kevin’s; Give Out; Magic Chords; Life of His Own; Don’t Do It; Tornado; Leonard; Serpents; I’m Wrong; Joke. Encore: Ask; Love More.

Photos and Review by John Bentley

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