There is something about experiencing a show in an ecclesiastical setting that somehow elevates the occasion to a different level of greatness. Is it just the venue that creates this affect upon those in attendance? It has nothing to do with religion (most of the time) but music can certainly define a person’s very being. The kind of music we choose to follow has an intrinsic impact on our personalities, our outlook on life and even who we decide to spend time with. It’s fair to say that it’s a pretty fundamental factor in who we really are. Sharon Van Etten is a singer-songwriter who has established quite a following recently and she is beginning to assemble a collection of songs that actually contribute to the validity of this philosophy. Seeing her on a stage at such a visually arresting venue as Manchester Cathedral, delivering her heart-felt songs full of real-life yearning and anxieties results in quite a primordial experience for many, and those unlucky enough not to get the prime real-estate spots in front and centre of the dramatically lit stage are forced to crane necks around pillars to get a proper view of the utterly charming SVE and her band.
Before we are treated to the main event, support comes in the form of Marisa Anderson, who recently contributed her unique guitar sound to Sharon Van Etten’s latest album, Are We There. Each song she plays tonight is a journey of discovery and it comes as no surprise to find that travel and an identification with the American landscape is important to this artist. Having walked across the USA twice, she lived out of her car for most of the 90s! Produced solely on guitar but exploring different rhythms and roots as she progresses through her set, we are treated to brief interludes between each instrumental as she explains the history of each song. The context of the tracks prove to be vital little injections of colour, helping to compliment the deeply expressive, energetic sounds being performed before us. This format does not quite sustain the forty minute slot and the crowd become somewhat restless towards the end, but most seem to accept that we have just been witness to a virtuoso display from a guitarist deeply rooted in tradition and storytelling. This is something which should be fundamental to all songwriters.
This is certainly the case with the main act. Sharon Van Ettan’s songs possess a sense of truth about them and her lo-fi origins allow her lyrics to breathe around vital yet at times quite sparse rhythms and melodies. The opening track is a case in point. Afraid of Nothing is a beautiful song. Fragile tones are constructed around a frank confession of fear that a relationship is at breaking point and set within the confines of the beautifully lit cathedral tonight, these admissions sound even more searingly honest. These brutal confessions continue in next track Taking Chances, which possesses a surprisingly aggressive chorus but is counter-balanced by some gorgeously lilting harmonies created between SVE’s extremely close collaboration with Heather Woods Broderick, who also plays keys throughout the night. It would certainly be unfair to regard Heather’s contribution to the show as merely backing vocalist when many of the songs are performed in essence as a duet and this continues in next track Tarifa, which establishes the importance placed on this aspect of SVE’s sound and musical approach. Certainly this is the case in the live context tonight and SVE explains in-between songs how much she trusts Heather’s presence amongst her soul-searching.
Initially, the focus of the night is understandably the latest album and during her rendition of Nothing Will Change comparisons emerge vocally with Lana Del Ray as well as Jagjaguwar label stablemate Angel Olsen amongst others. Never over-wrought though, her performance is ultimately one of incredible expression and emotion. Her early singing experiences in choir groups back in New Jersey become more and more apparent during these moments and this helps to identify her particular penchant for unique harmonies in her music. This continues mid-way through the show, even as she veers away from her more recent, recognisable material. At one point in the evening she even states that musically, “this could be any song” and in a way she has a point. Despite the starry lineup which includes Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jesse along with troubadour Douglas Keith on guitar, tonight’s show is musically restrained and this allows the honest themes of the songs to emerge without distraction. The process seems to be a cathartic one for SVE and if rumours are to be believed, she is considering new opportunities away from music. This would be a huge loss for her fans, but if this collection of songs are simply confessional moments she feels she needs to get off her chest, tonight’s venue was certainly the right place to do it.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto