Gig Review and Photography by John Bentley

Sharon Van Etten, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

Sharon Van Etten is on a bit of a rollercoaster. Following the breakthrough success of her 2012 ‘Tramp’, this year’s ‘Are We There’ seems to have fulfilled her promise and is already being listed as one of the best albums of 2014. Tonight she and her band bring the new album to Manchester.

Marisa Anderson, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

Marisa Anderson played some guitar on ‘Are We There’ and has contributed to a number of film soundtracks. Tonight she provides the support act in the gorgeous setting of a dimly lit Manchester Cathedral. Taking a seat at the front of the stage with her guitars, in a very quiet voice she tells us she’s from Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately it’s difficult to hear a lot of what she tells us, but fortunately her shyness does not conceal her obvious enthusiasm for her music and her virtuosity on the guitar. In her half hour set she performs a series of instrumentals on her electric guitars, much of the time playing slide. She draws on many influences including traditional American folk, blues and country music and you can also hear other things like Indian and African elements lurking in there. I’m reminded of the music of steel-string guitar instrumentalist John Fahey. Her album ‘Mercury’ has been highly praised and later Sharon Van Etten recommends it as music that will really stay with you forever.

Sharon Van Etten, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

Tonight is rather special for Sharon Van Etten. As seems to be happening with increasing regularity with artists at Manchester gigs, she comes to us directly from a session on Marc Riley’s Radio 6 show, recorded at the BBC’s nearby Salford studios. In addition she’s obviously much in awe of the unique and magnificent cathedral setting. The coloured lighting is fabulous, as it bathes the gothic carvings on the screen behind the makeshift stage. Van Etten tells us that earlier there was some worry about whether the smoke machine outpourings would damage the cathedral fabric. She left it to the techies to sort things out, but you can sense that this very sensitive lady would really not want to be responsible for any damage to this historic building.

Sharon Van Etten band, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

She starts the show with the two opening tracks from the new album. Her voice seems to be getting richer with the passing of time and throughout the evening she does a lot of close harmony singing with her keyboard player, Heather Woods Broderick, as on opener ‘Afraid of Nothing’. The two clearly have a close musical partnership. Indeed this is a very tightly knit and restrained touring band, with much visible empathy between the players. You constantly hear of bands breaking-up acrimoniously, but this seems like one with few egos and you can’t somehow imagine it happening with this lot. And they all seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about what they are doing.

Sharon Van Etten, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

Van Etten is obviously very comfortable with and confident in the new album, as the majority of the songs tonight are taken from it. For the fourth song she dips back to her second album (‘Epic’, 2010) for ‘Save Yourself’. But then it’s back to the new stuff. She dedicates ‘Break Me’ to a group of people in the audience who seem to be following her gigs around. For ‘Nothing Will Change’ she swaps places on stage with Heather, who nearly trips over Sharon’s amp. “I should have put my amp in a better place”, she jokes, as she takes her position behind the keyboard.

“I Don’t Want to Let You Down’, features a rare and shrill guitar solo from Doug Keith, who Sharon quips has the middle name ‘Wailer’. Then the others leave the stage, leaving her to perform solo. She praises the band, “it’s great to have those guys with me”. ‘Keep’ is her father’s favourite song she tells us and wishes him happy birthday. The song takes her voice to the highest places of the evening. Then Heather rejoins her on stage for ‘Life of His Own’, which was apparently the first song they sang together and is about being an independent woman. The boys, as she calls them, return for two final band songs before the set comes to an end.

Sharon Van Etten band, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

The packed Cathedral rings out with heartfelt cheering and clapping for an encore, as Sharon and the band return for two final songs, which turn out to be the highlights of the evening. First up is ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, with Van Etten playing the sparse but beautiful notes of this delicate song on the piano. There is sensitive close harmony singing with Heather Woods Broderick and restrained brushes on the drums from Darren Jessee. This is truly one of the highpoints of the new album and a fan in front of me tells me he’s been waiting for the song all evening and points me in the direction of Van Etten’s recent performance of it on Jools Holland, which can be found on You Tube.

She thanks Marc Riley for having her on his radio show tonight then announces the final song is ‘Give Out’, to whoops of applause. This is probably the best song she’s yet written and, strangely, it’s the only one from the ‘Tramp’ album all evening. We get an excellent rendition of this highly emotional song, played slightly slower than on the record and with some added oomph provided towards the end by the guitar, bass and drums.

Sharon Van Etten, Manchester Cathedral, 24-11-14

So, overall a truly uplifting evening, especially considering so many of Van Etten’s songs are about the emotional tensions of relationships and break-ups. Her songs and her on-stage chat mark her out as being very open and vulnerable and her audiences seems to love and respect her for this. And the beautiful acoustics and atmosphere provided by the Cathedral tonight escalate this to the status of a true evening to remember.

Setlist: Afraid of Nothing; Taking Chances; Tarifa; Save Yourself; Break Me; Nothing Will Change; I Don’t Want To Let You Down; Tell Me; Keep; Life Of His Own; Our Love; Don’t Do It. Encore: I Love You But I’m Lost; Give Out.

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