Sharon Van Etten
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 29/4/2015
published: 21 /
Jamie Rowland watches Sharon Van Etten somehow makes a sold-out show at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London feel like an intimate performance, with a night of raw, confessional and beautiful music
It’s hard to believe that the first time that I met Sharon Van Etten, she was struggling to fill the Hoxton Bar and Grill and unsure if she’d be able to come back to the UK again. It had been so hard to find a venue this time around. Five short years later, she’s easily sold out O2’s Shepherd's Bush Empire and will no doubt draw a huge crowd when she plays Glastonbury Festival this summer.
I put it down to two things: the intimacy and honesty of her music, and the power and emotion in her singing voice. Her lyrics are raw, confessional and confrontational descriptions of past lives, loves and heartbreaks, and all the weight of those memories is carried across in her music, and to great effect too.
It helps that she is a great songwriter, accompanied by a faultless backing band that she clearly loves playing with. Her interactions with the group show a real trust and friendship between them, which translates perfectly into their performance.
The crowd was a mix of old and young, with the younger contingent giving me the opportunity to practice my future role as a crotchety old man, with their loud, obnoxious voices and irritating haircuts keeping me occupied, unreasonably hating them while I waited for Ms Van Etten to take to the stage.
Sure enough, when she did arrive they proved my suspicions correct by yelling periodically throughout the evening, in a perfect illustration of the law of diminishing returns. What they were yelling, I don’t think anyone apart from the unlucky souls standing nearest to them know. Their yelling was greeted with polite thank yous from the band at first, then “ok”, then simply shrugs.
Despite these fairly standard London crowd moments, for the most part the audience was surprisingly and respectfully quiet while the band was playing; of course applauding and cheering for the songs they loved (most of the set was dedicated to Van Etten’s last and most popular two albums), but without the constant background chatter so often familiar to people who go to gigs in London.
Powerhouse performances of tracks like ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’, ‘Serpents’ and ‘Magic Chords’ bowled everyone over, but my personal favourite parts of the night were hearing ‘Save Yourself’ from 2010’s 'Epic' (one of the first songs I heard by her) and a solo performance of ‘I Know’, one of Van Etten’s most beautiful tracks, highlighting her outstanding voice and moving lyrics. As she stood at the keyboard, alone on the stage as the crowd silently listened to her sing, the emotion of the song washed over the whole space.
It seems odd to say you leave a Sharon Van Etten gig on a high, only because her songs are so filled with pain and sadness. But when the night ends with a rousing version of ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’, you can’t help but feel lifted by the fact that such fantastic music exists in the world.