Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sharon van Etten, Manchester Cathedral, 24th November 2014 9.5/10

Sharon Van Etten's 2012 date in Manchester was magical, so my expectations for this show were lofty. Yet, I was a little concerned about a loss of intimacy in the progression from the small Deaf Institute to the vast nave of the Cathedral. In fact, the visually spectacular venue helped to elevate this experience from inspired to truly memorable and make it one of my gigs of the year. Sharon referred more than once to the religious nature of the space, commenting on the irony of playing Save Yourself here. Her tone suggested that she's endured past challenges with the church, but for the audience, her choral training brought only gains. Sharon's soprano voice was strong, pure, and pitch perfect, but still managed to be expressive.

It surprised me that such a personal creation felt so collaborative. Her band is starry, with Darren Jesse of Ben Folds Five sensitively restrained on drums, Brad Cook from Magafuan on bass, and Douglas Keith on guitar also sounding incredibly tight. The sense of painstaking preparation and technical accomplishment were reminiscent of an expert classical ensemble. The virtuosic guitar playing of opener and studio collaborator Marisa Anderson set the scene for instrumental excellence, but was wordless. As if by compensation, the main act provided a near operatic vocal extravaganza, thanks to the inclusion of Heather Woods Broderick from Efterklang. She played keys and tambourine, but on vocals duetted instead of merely providing backing. The ensemble body gave the songs time to breathe, yet felt far from laid back because of the presence of an urgency and vibrancy that's missing from the studio.

With four albums, inevitably some favourites were omitted from the 90 minute set. I regretted the lack of Serpents, a highlight of Tramp, and the absence of Your Love is Killing Me, a stand out track from 2014's  Are We There. The powerful Tarifa suffered from the lack of live saxophones, but the preponderance of new songs was entirely apt given the intense atmosphere. 2012's Tramp was the result of a collaboration with The National's Aaron Dessner, whereas her latest album was self-produced, and feels even more heartfelt. To match this, there was an absence of overt theatrically in Manchester. Sharon is a diminutive figure on stage, and made little attempt to dance or even move  from her two microphone positions. Instead, the drama and light came from her mercurial facial expressions; at times she would engage audience members by looking into their eyes.

This was an immensely subtle performance, and the meticulous backing and nuances of the harmony reminded me of PJ Harvey. Yet, there's nothing contrived about Sharon's rawness, which reflects an undercurrent of anger. This show felt powerfully moving, amplified by the spectacular architecture and reverberant acoustic (although, from my position near the stage, it did affect the clarity of lyrics). The stagecraft may appear introverted, but she communicates a playful, quirky and warm personality. Her chatter with the audience was humours and generous, with little of Elena Tonra's  shyness despite temperamental similarities with Daughter. Sharon's talked in the past of the hope that her dark poetry can be a form of therapy for her listeners. There's a sense that sharing such raw emotion is cathartic for performer as well as audience. The set last night melded into one long, gloriously melancholic sweep, betraying an almost overwhelmingly touching sensitivity to the fragile human condition.

Set List
  • Afraid of Nothing
  • Taking Chances
  • Tarifa
  • Save Yourself
  • Break Me
  • Nothing Will Change
  • I Don't Want to Let You Down
  • Tell Me
  • Keep (solo)
  • Live of his Own (solo)
  • Our Love
  • Don't Do It
  • I love you but I'm Lost
  • Give Out


  1. Nice review Jeremy. I loved the gig, although I was sad that Serpents never made the cut

  2. Thanks Mike. I'm told that she performed Serpents at several other dates on the tour though. Hopefully see you at another gig soon, though I only have 1 left until after the new year.