A seamless transition
Sharon Van Etten - Live At Cargo, London

It’s been quite a year for New Jersey songstress Sharon Van Etten. After providing guest vocals for The Antlers and The National, as well as seeing ‘Love More’ covered by Bon Iver, she has been able to call in a few favours for her most recent record, ‘Tramp’. With production from The National’s Aaron Dessner and guest collaborators that include, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen), Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) and Julianna Barwick, the indie hype machine has been going overtime for Van Etten’s brand of folk-rock.

With a new record, we also have a new band to aid Van Etten’s seamless transition from acoustic singer-songwriter to the multi-layered dynamism seen in Dessner’s excellent production. It’s the band’s first gig in the UK despite earlier visits for Van Etten and provides a chance to experiment with the set before a series of UK dates in May. A live performance with a new band employs a trial-by-error approach to find out what works and how to strike the right balance between the new and old Van Etten. This was self-evident in the opening song, ‘Warsaw’, which struggled to really get off the ground as Van Etten grappled with the soaring vocals while playing rhythm guitar which, unfortunately, meant that timings often went awry. However, this lapse proves to be the only glitch of the evening in an otherwise flawless performance.

‘Give-out’, one of the particularly striking tracks from ‘Tramp’, is delivered with a vulnerability and delicacy that is rare to see in such a seasoned performer. Van Etten’s voice has the ability to transfix audiences and although for the large part they are gentle and confessional, the jagged guitars represent an inner angst that inspires her lyrics.

‘Serpents’ erupts and hurls itself apart from the rest of the set with a sense of urgency that provides an outlet for the resentment masked in her other heartbroken songs. Van Etten sings, "You enjoy sucking on dreams, so I will fall asleep with someone other than you," whilst the audience is simultaneously serenaded by crashing drums and swooning guitars.

The contrast between records shows how Van Etten has grown as a songwriter and how she has used her varying influences to great effect. One of the few songs played from her previous albums is ‘Save Yourself’ a song which is stripped back and heavily laden with country and western tones and guitar licks that are fittingly played to a backdrop of agricultural and farming images, a reference perhaps to her previous time spent in Tennessee.

You might have been forgiven for expecting very little stage interaction bar the odd grunt given the introspective and sultry nature of Van Etten’s songs. However, Van Etten’s charm provides a welcome contrast as she takes every opportunity to point out anomalies in the performance, as well as attempting impromptu whistle-alongs and regaling the audience with wild tour stories of buying stationary. Backing vocalist, Heather Woods Broderick, the butt of this story and most of the band’s japes, bounces off Van Etten and provides further depth to the floating vocals as she moves between the various instruments at her disposal.

The band closes with distortion-filled ‘I’m Wrong’ which swirls around the room leaving most of the audience in a trance. Once grounded, the audience are then greeted by an eagerly anticipated encore that doesn’t disappoint.

It’s refreshing to see an artist tackling the barbed edges of indie hype and fame whilst still managing to push at the boundaries - something Van Etten manages to do with apparent ease which, all-combined, makes for an intriguing and compelling show.

Words by Andrew Darby

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