Gig Review by John Murphy with Photography by John Bentley

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15

Love hurts. Love scars. And there’s nobody who quite knows how to document the more painful side of love than Sharon Van Etten. Ever since she first appeared in 2009 with an album inspired by a former partner who smashed up her guitar and told her that her music was pointless (note to that man – you are very wrong), she’s specialised in writing love songs that are painful and startling in their honesty.

Her previous UK tour was only last Autumn, but the release of a forthcoming 5 track EP has seen her return to these shores, including two nights at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club. It’s quite a coup for the 400 capacity West Yorkshire venue, and there’s a real sense of occasion around the Brudenell this weekend, as proven by the long queues snaking into the front door to gain entrance.

Sam Amidon, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15
Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon makes for a fine support to Van Etten – the singer/songwriter from Vermont is joined onstage by drummer Chris Vatalaro and together they manage to cook up a beguiling, if slightly avant-garde sound. Amidon is a multi-talented guy, expertly playing guitar, banjo and violin (often in the same song), while Vatalaro proves equally adept at multi-tasking. Amidon’s songs draw on folk, bluegrass and country, and he even finds time to throw in a cover version of Tears For Fears’ Head Over Heels before treating us to a reading from his latest book.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15

The first thing you notice about Sharon Van Etten when she tiptoes onto the Brudenell stage is how tiny she is – it seems almost impossible that a voice as powerful as hers is could emanate from such a diminutive frame. Yet as soon as she straps on her guitar and launches into Afraid of Nothing, it’s clear that this is a woman on the very top of her game. Her four-piece band fit in beside her effortlessly, and the chemistry between the five people on stage is beautiful to watch.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15

The setlist is reasonably heavy on Van Etten’s latest album Are We There, with gems like Tarifa and Taking Chances dusted off pretty early in the evening. For a woman who deals pretty exclusively in heartbreak and disintegrating relationships, her stage banter is genuinely funny and upbeat, replying to one drunken fan who had declared his love for her keyboard player Heather Woods Broderick by adopting a cod Brooklyn accent and yelling “hey, get in line, buddy!”. Incidentally, it’s Broderick who provides one of the evening’s highlights, in a beautiful duet with Van Etten on the stark and fragile early album track Keep.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15

With a Van Etten setlist, you never quite know what you’re going to get (to paraphrase Forrest Gump) – so, tonight, there’s no room for fan favourites Give Out, Warsaw or Everytime The Sun Comes Up, but we do have two of Van Etten’s best, most intense songs to close out the set. Your Love Is Killing Me sounds, almost impossibly, even more intense and self-flagellating that the recorded version, with Van Etten wailing “break my legs so I can’t walk to you, stab my eyes so I can’t see you” over an ever increasing maelstrom of guitar. The effect is just breathtaking.

And then comes Serpents. I’ve listened to Serpents a countless number of times now, and I’m still left breathless by its power, its intensity and its ability to sum up a toxic relationship with a line so perfect as “you enjoy sucking on dreams, so I will fall asleep with someone other than you”. Tonight is the first time I’ve heard it live, and if anything, it’s even more impressive than the studio version – unsurprisingly, the cries for the inevitable encore come loud afterwards.

Sharon Van Etten, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, 26-4-15

It takes some talent to make 90 minutes of songs this inherently sad fly by – but Sharon Van Etten is a woman of immense talent. Heartache never sounded quite so good.

Leave a Reply