There are many reasons to love gigs in churches. There is the sense of novelty, the grandeur; there is the acoustics, and that heart-smackingly magical moment when the first note flies out into the cavernous space and, if you’re sitting in the top gallery, momentarily tempts you to believe that you could leap off and float on the billowing cloud of music between you and the performer.
Sharon Van Etten gave the honour of providing that first note thrill in St George’s Church to Marisa Anderson, a fellow American who has accompanied her on this tour, and who warmed up the audience a treat with her gospel-tinged blues, folk and bluegrass guitar pieces. Swapping between electro-acoustic and lap steel guitar, the softly spoken artist used the vocal mic only to tell the stories behind the tunes and then simply let the vivid mental imagery unfold, while her virtuosic playing gave a tantalising taster of a musician worthy of much further attention.
Having toured with the likes of Nick Cave and The National (the latter also lending skills to her third album, ‘Tramp’, along with other indie luminaries), Sharon Van Etten has slotted into a cabal of artists known for drawing fans into their own distinct, often dark, immersive world. Her recent fourth album ‘Are We There’ has seen her blossom with a fuller sound, and tonight she opened with the LP’s first two tracks, ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ and ‘Taking Chances’, back-to-back, setting out her stall for a set heavy with this sumptuous and poetic new material.
In some respects, tonight’s venue was the perfect setting for her beautifully intense songs, laden as they are with harmonies that recall a childhood spent singing in choirs back home in New Jersey. The emotional directness of Van Etten’s lyrics and her divine, chocolate-rich voice make for a pin-drop sensibility. But the line between hushed reverence and timid reserve is a fine one, especially when the audience is seated, and this is where the buzz and the freedom of a noisier and scuzzier venue would have come in handy, for all the church’s merits. A long, speechless pause after just two numbers, while she switched guitars, allowed the energy to dwindle and the slow burn of her songs meant it was a while before it fizzed again.
When she did get talking, there was a melancholy skittishness in Van Etten’s demeanour, and her repeated, longing-tinged mentions of the fact that it was Thanksgiving back home – despite the British audience’s ambivalence towards the subject – hinted at the source of her turmoil. But – in life as in song – her lack of fakery or front is one thing Van Etten’s fans love about her, and their confidence was rewarded with many enjoyable sparks of comedy and candour as she warmed up into her between-song rambles.
Musically, the Pretenders-esque rock of ‘I Don’t Want To Let You Down’ was one of a few tracks to break through the polite atmosphere, drumming up rapturous applause via a rare show of squally guitar skulduggery; another highlight was ‘Our Love’, the live piano amping up the relatively sparse arrangement of twanging guitar and tingling synth while still providing a subtle backdrop for of Van Etten’s clear and lofty vocal.
After offering up her heartfelt thanks to her close-knit and on-point band (deserving of special mention is back-up singer Heather Woods Broderick for her impeccable harmonies) and to the audience, she launched into the last song of the main set. ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ was a perfect moment, the luxuriously tragic romance of the lyrics delivered through a relatively stark and plaintive vocal performance, with hardly any harmonies to soften the bitterness and all the more powerful for it.
Another chance to hear Van Etten’s voice stripped bare was granted, thanks to the longest and most lovingly persistent demand for an encore that I have ever seen. All hints of the subdued atmosphere were dispensed with, as the entire main section of the audience got up to show their appreciation with hands, voices and feet, appearing to shake the stone church to its foundations. When Van Etten emerged, looking and sounding quite floored with emotion, to take to the piano for a powerful solo performance of ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, the audience were on their feet at last and huddled around the stage, just like she – and they – had wanted all along.
As the heartrending melodies of this very last number took hold, the raw vulnerability and generosity of the performance were truly something to witness, highlighting just why Van Etten has attracted such a loyal and affectionate fanbase who will always be happy to be her Thanksgiving family, no matter where in the world they are from.