Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by John Bentley

Down in the basement of the Leeds University Student Union is Stylus. A thousand capacity venue with a superb sound and lighting system it boasts two bars over three floors and evokes an intimate ‘small club’ feel. Out of term time but tonight’s show is nonetheless sold-out with a broad mix of students, ‘thirty-somethings’ and what could easily be their mums and dads.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

Sharon Van Etten’s (SVE) four piece band (drums; bass; two keyboards) take the stage and a stark drum beat sets the scene for a minute or three. The cool promise of ecstasy fills the air before Sharon appears with just microphone in hand and belts out the line: ‘our love’s for real’. Everything about her is unrecognisable from when I last saw her seven years ago at the Queen’s Club in Sheffield. She’s embraced the classic rocker look – think Chrissie Hynde – shorn black hair; tattoos, red lippy and leather pants but what is remarkable is the confidence, swagger and sheer energy that she brings to the performance. Her moves are positively Jagger-esque (‘touching your face’) and tightly choreographed as she poses for the cameras and commands eye contact. The sound is bigger, darker, keyboard heavy and mostly guitar free.

In the course of the evening she gives some clues as to how the diffident, introverted folkie in a baggy jumper reinvented herself and her music. Five years slow build while out of the public eye, the birth of her son, strong relationships back home in Brooklyn, studying Psychology with a view to counselling, a spot of acting and film scoring, a supportive band and seven months relentless touring may all have something to do with the evolution. Or maybe it is down to something she told The Observer in an illuminating interview earlier this year: “The more I let go the more I progress as a human being”.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

There is no let up after opener ‘Jupiter 4’ (the name of a Roland synthesizer from the early 1980s). Two more cuts follow from the new album Remind Me Tomorrow and maintain the tinkling electro pop and big bass lines over which her hypnotic dreamy vocals float.

Pause for breath as SVE addresses the audience for the first time. She tells us this is the last show of the European leg and how glad she is to back in a club land where you can “feel the energy, see the audience and rock out”. She’s recently played a string of festivals including Glastonbury and Green Man.

The tone changes when SRV straps on her ruby red guitar and dips into her back catalogue for three songs. ‘Give Out’ (from 2012’s breakthrough album Tramp), Tarifa (featured in Twin Peaks) and the sassy saunter of ‘One Day’. It is a welcome change of pace and key to the architecture of the set but it is a relief to get back to the new album which is played in its entirety. Hands free once more SVE’s key instrument (the voice) is to the fore on ‘Memorial Day’ as another dreamy vocal levitates above a sparse Portishead-like backdrop. ‘Malibu’ is similarly lyrically light but features some sweet couplets and fun lines: “Driving down the coast in the little red car that don’t belong to you…”; the Pacific Coast Highway is chock full of rented convertibles.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

‘Hands’ turns up the volume as it evolves into an epic rock-out before the band abruptly leave the stage leaving SVE alone the keyboards. The illusion of the performance cracks as she admits to feeling suddenly nervous. Matters aren’t helped by a first aid emergency in the pit (the air-conditioning should have been turned up long beforehand). Rather than play on, her concern is palpable and she stops the show and the lights are turned up. The pause gives her the opportunity to talk about the impact of having a child, taking care of each other every day and staying positive in a world where everything seems so negative. It also leads to the two best performances of the evening.

First up is a cover of the exquisite ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’. Although the song is rooted in the 1980s it is timeless social commentary and is so expertly delivered that Sinead O’Connor would approve. Perhaps this is another direction SVE could explore. The band rejoin for a riveting take on ‘Seventeen’. Any nervousness has vanished as SVE hams it up, crouching at the edge of the stage and looking directly into the eyes of the faithful. The emotional intensity coupled with ‘last night of the tour’ relief causes SVE’s voice to crack as she delivers heartfelt thanks to her band, the crew, the legendary nearby Brudenell Social Club and to her audience: “I did this whole tour and didn’t cry onstage once – fucking Leeds”.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

The show peaks here even though the next song – ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’ – is fun and a fan favourite that everyone can sing along to. There is even a t-shirt to buy. As a rule SVE doesn’t do happy, funny or anthemic songs but now is the time to listen to her Mother and have a crack at them. Heaven knows she’s no longer miserable now.

The show closes with a breath taking and assured vocal on ‘Stay’, the final candid track on the new album.

SVE gives more than entertainment. She gives humility, humour and the human touch of an artist who has confronted her demons and continues to grow in front of your very eyes.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds University

Set list: 1: Jupiter 4; Comeback Kid; No One’s Easy To Love; Give Out; Tarifa; One Day; Memorial Day; You Shadow; Malibu; Hands; Black Boys on Mopeds; Seventeen; Every Time The Sun Comes Up; Stay.
Encores: All I Can; I Told You Everything.

Occupying the support slot is Heather Woods Broderick. A dear friend of SVE, Heather has contributed keyboards and backing vocals to the last two albums as well as to her touring band since at least 2012. With three albums under her own name belt Broderick is an accomplished pianist and is supported tonight by bass and drums. Her set takes off with the last number (only the preceding ‘Mama Shelter’ is introduced) which benefits from a superb vocal.

Heather Woods Broderick, Leeds University

Heather Woods Broderick, Leeds University

One Response to “Sharon Van Etten + Heather Woods Broderick at Stylus, University Union, Leeds, UK – 22nd August 2019”

  1. Victoria Says:

    Great review. Makes me really want to go and see her next times she’s in UK. Thanks.

Leave a Reply