Sharon Van Etten captivated Melbourne with a shamelessly honest performance

Sharon Van Etten captivated Melbourne with a shamelessly honest performance

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Words by Augustus Welby
Photos by Ryley Remedios

The New York songwriter had her audience in the palm of her hand.

The evening prior to Sharon Van Etten’s Hamer Hall gig, the New York songwriter took her band to the 3RRR live performance space. The venue’s equipped to facilitate a dynamic rock show, but Shaz (as presenter Jazz Feldy named her) took the opportunity to strip things back. She donned an acoustic guitar, drummer Jorge Balbi operated a sample pad, and the excitable Devin Hoff saddled a double bass.

It’s fair to say Sharon Van Etten fans are members of the club – they’re supporters of whatever she does, in contrast to bandwagon fans – but this year’s Remind Me Tomorrow is a definite left turn. Gone is the strummed guitar and mid-tempo Americana-tinge of her earlier work. In its place, fuzz bass, gnarled synths and mid-aughts indie-dance beats take centre stage. Playing them stripped back, however, the songs were in closer agreement to her first four LPs.

At Hamer Hall, it was a different story. It’s no coincidence Portishead played through the PA as the band walked out. Van Etten has spoken about the Bristol band’s guiding influence on Remind Me Tomorrow, along with Suicide and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree.

The new album dominated the setlist. The synth sounds were even bristlier live, Hoff’s bass frequency monumental. Van Etten spent most of the show freed from her guitar, standing front-and-centre in a velvet suit, in thrall to the songs.

Her between-song demeanour was relaxed and witty. She gives her whole body to these songs, so the light relief was probably as essential for her as it was for us. Van Etten possesses a striking voice and knows just how and when to stretch it. It’s long been reinforced by the inextricable vocal harmonies of keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick. Aided by the Hall’s satisfying acoustics, the pair have never sounded better.

Van Etten’s not entirely accustomed to performing sans guitar, but the liberty to roam created one of the tingliest moments of the evening. The final verse in ‘Seventeen’ is an exorcism and tonight it was directed at a single crowd member. “I know that you’re gonna be / You’ll crumble it up just to see / Afraid that you’ll be just like me.” It was a dramatic instance, but it doesn’t sound like such a bad way to be.

The band exited a few songs prior to the setlist conclusion, allowing Van Etten to sit down at the piano for a rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Black Boys On Mopeds’. Written in response to the death of Colin Roach at the hands of British police officers, it was a vehicle for Van Etten to express her own fears as a new mother.

This dark reflection on division and racial inequality contrasted with the final song of the encore, ‘Love More’. “Help me believe in humanity,” said Van Etten in the song’s introduction. We all knew we were in a bubble and that outside the opulence of Hamer Hall the world would remain just as fucked up and cruel, but this encouragement to show more love and understanding was not in vain.

Highlight: The harmonies.

Lowlight: Lost youth.

Crowd favourite: ‘Tarifa’.