Live Review

Sharon Van Etten, La [2] de Apolo, Barcelona

It’s an intense five minutes that leaves everyone stunned and spellbound; there’s no idle chitchat, and no phones held aloft.

Photo by Dani Canto
I know there’s a recession on, but this is a depressing sight; barely 120 people have bothered to come out on a still, balmy Saturday night, prime time 9pm, to see Sharon Van Etten. Maybe it’s the €22 tickets coupled with the lack of a support band. Maybe it’s the watery beer in small plastic cups for €3.50 a pop – Coke costing the same. Maybe it’s the fact that Barça are on TV. Either way, if this is supposed to be the future, it looks pretty much doomed.

It’s a shame, as someone like Van Etten deserves better. It might even be smaller than the crowd that greeted her in May, at Primavera Sound. There, she was unfairly cast against burning sunshine, blue skies, and the vastness of the main stage when her heartfelt tales cry out for dark, hushed intimacy. Truth be told it was a horrible slot, a scheduling short straw, but despite a few shaky moments, it was to her credit that she delivered a solid set not lacking in beauty or tension.

But that was then, and this is now. Here, she’s in her element. The stage is small, and dimly lit. A shabby curtain and a bored security guard are all that separate us from backstage. Her and her band walk on to no fanfare, and if it wasn’t for a smattering of applause and a few isolated cheers, those busy yapping at the bar would be none the wiser that the show was about to begin. Backed by just a melodica, she softly coos the opening lines of ‘All I Can’ before the band take off, up through the gears and the tempo, tugging at your heartstrings and your subconscious. By the time she’s pleading “But who is my man?” the crescendo’s at full force, threatening to sweep everyone away as Van Etten hammers her beloved Fender Jazzmaster.

It’s an intense five minutes that leaves everyone stunned and spellbound; there’s no idle chitchat, and no phones held aloft. The thought occurs that she can’t possibly keep this up for an hour, that by leading with ‘Tramp”s best song she’s peaked too early. Such worries are unfounded. DIY has already waxed lyrical about her show stealing spot on Later… and it’s right; she nailed it. But up close and personal, stretched over sixty minutes, her power is magnified. We hear fingers scrape the strings, see the glint in her eye, and feel the quiver in her voice. ‘Serpents’ is indeed dramatic, but so are ‘Don’t Do It’, ‘Save Yourself’, and all thirteen tracks she gifts us.

She looks utterly at home in the spotlight yet bewildered that people have paid money to see her; the nervous, inter-song banter is shot through with myriad “Thanks”, “Gracias”, and “You guys are so kind”. She takes time to properly introduce her bandmates, but forgets herself. Songs are introduced with rambling tales concerning their genesis; about her current beau, listening to Leonard Cohen, and moving city for the wrong reasons. Nimbly switching between acoustic and electric, the peaks, troughs and lulls are all in the right place, and despite the bittersweet nature of her material it’s uplifting, not maudlin – hymns for those not afraid to love, lose, and love again.

We’re left with the rarest of feelings, that life is to be lived each and every day, one moment at a time. She’s a survivor, back from the darkness with proof of the light. These songs have been toured for nigh on a year now and it shows; assured, poised, and confident, the band have learned how to harness the swirling power of her compositions. It’s essential viewing for anyone still wishing to deride the story-telling singer songwriter as ‘dull’, ‘boring’, or that most heinous of crimes, ‘unoriginal’. That someone so fragile, so genteel, can so thoroughly dispel icy blasts of indifference with just her guitar and her words is truly something not to be missed. Tonight, too many did. No joke or a lie, Sharon Van Etten deserves better.

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