Never judge a gig by its audience, so the old adage goes. Actually I made that up, but for Sharon Van Etten‘s triumphant return to Brighton it’s advice well heeded. Judging by tonight’s punters, her music should sound like a portly, bearded man of a certain mature age – whatever that would sound like. I suspect it doesn’t sound like tonight’s set, which encompasses delicate harmonies, looped vocals and comes to a feedback-drenched conclusion.
As the sold out crowd fight for air in the sweaty underbelly of Komedia, Sharon and her four-piece band wander on stage, clutching nerve-reducing beers. The band are multi-instrumentalists and swap guitars, basses and strange looking wind instruments throughout the show.
The set begins somewhat laboriously, the sound balance isn’t quite right for opening track Warsaw, but this soon gets corrected and as the set progresses the band’s confidence and tightness grows. The majority of the set list is made up of songs from latest release Tramp. On record the songs are sparse and have a haunted sensibility. Live they have muscle and a much more grungy, rough-around-the-edges feel. Having said that, the best sounding songs are ones where Sharon plays her acoustic guitar as it gives her voice that extra space to resonate.
Second song All I Can builds from a single strumming motif and solo vocal to full band harmonies, drums and extra layers of guitar that produce a musical swirl around repeated refrain ‘we all make mistakes.’ Next song Kevin’s is, according to Sharon, about “quitting smoking after breaking up with somebody” and is a slow-burning mediation on making bad decisions – ‘you dig your own grave’ so goes the lyrics.
Things really get going with Give Out. Easily her strongest song, it stands out in terms of lyrics, melody and vocal delivery. It’s not clear what the song is about, but it’s both achingly maudlin and strangely uplifting. Sharon addresses a person unknown as ‘the reason why I’ll move to the city, or why I’ll need to leave.’ It’s poignant and emotionally charged and the stand out track of the evening.
Half way through the set someone shouts out ‘Hey, Shazza,’ prompting a curious Sharon to ask why this is such a common derivative in England. No one seems to know the answer, but she promises that the next tour will have her adopted moniker emblazoned across the band t-shirts. The band are friendly and interact with the crowd and each other throughout the gig, at one point teasing keyboard player Heather Woods Broderick that the fortress of amps, pedals and music stands surrounding her are to keep her out of trouble.
Hannah’s harmonies add real weight to the music. In Line begins with recorded vocal loops that build to a crescendo of multiple melodies, whilst Ask is a delicate interplay of voices lending a psychedelic feel to the song.
Things get a little rockier with latest single Serpents, which reminds me strangely of indie stalwarts Interpol. The ‘bad ass’ bass line is fluid, the guitars have an extra crunch and the drums are frenetic producing a real earthy 90s sound that adds enough punch to get the bearded men (almost) dancing.
The set ends with a long version of I’m Wrong with guitarist Doug Keith gliding a violin bow across his guitar strings as Sharon draws as much feedback as possible out of her instrument. The affect is a swirling chorus of different tones and harmonies that will resonate long in the hearts and minds of those present.