An evening of firsts: my first chance to witness Sharon Van Etten in a live setting, and my first visit to The Mill venue. A relatively new addition to the city’s growing list of venues, nestled in the heart of Digbeth’s post-industrial landscape. Both introductory encounters manage to yield one hell of a blissful union this evening as Van Etten and the surroundings are splendid.
Almost every UK date of Van Etten’s tour has sold out, with the exception of tonight – the opening show of the tour – and the following evening in Manchester. Testament to the appetite of audiences to catch Van Etten following her hiatus.
The Mill, a perfect setting for this evening’s headliner, soaked in the darkened hue of its manufacturing past, the room is dimly lit, with shadowy figures peppered in amongst the exposed brickwork and industrial steel finishes. Though not a sellout, the venue is tantalisingly close to reaching its maximum occupancy.
The stage appears almost transient, a metal frame that forms a cube, a vessel that will soon enough house Van Etten and her sublime band – notably, Heather Woods Broderick and McKenzie Smith.
A wellspring of neon pinks and blues gently hum from the rear of the stage as the headliners step out from the shadows. Conversations are abandoned as the audiences’ attentiveness is awakened by the arrival of Van Etten. Ascending synths begin to pulsate with a trace of menace as the atmosphere shifts into some version of a Nicholas Winding Refn film. The burgeoning swirls of brooding drones tumble into ‘Jupiter 4’ – reportedly titled after the synth machine upon which the song was composed.
Van Etten is positioned at the centre of the stage, whilst her guitars stand temporarily ignored, an unfamiliar scenario for all concerned, but wholly representative of Van Etten’s latest release ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’, an album which has seen Van Etten relinquish her guitars in favour of tape loops, theremins and synthesizers. This new endeavour has been rapturously welcomed by fans and critics, and the opening two songs – ‘Jupiter 4’ and ‘Comeback Kid’ – completely transform the immediate environment from the everyday, into the other worldly, Van Etten imitative of a Patti Smith at her most fervent during ‘Comeback Kid’.
These first two songs, both taken from the new album, are vibrant and punchy, leaving just the right amount of space for Van Etten’s powerful vocal to fully exert its might. ‘No One’s Easy to Love’ Van Etten engages her guitar for the first time, fondly reaching for her tiny purse of guitar picks and anecdotally recalling her mother spotting the purse and claiming it to have Van Etten written all over it. This brief interlude demonstrates the comfort and ease with which Van Etten finds herself tonight. No mean feat considering this album and tour is her first since returning from a period of active pursuits away from her solo recording. Added to that, the shift in musicality, a prospect that could undermine the confidence of any artist. No such worries here as Van Etten is caught up in the joy of performing, often smiling throughout the evening, and calling out the wonderful vibe in the room.
Though the setlist weighs heavily in favour of the fantastic new material, Van Etten occasionally dips in and out of her previous albums. ‘Tarifa’, ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’ and ‘Serpents’ which are joyfully welcomed by the hardcore contingent in the audience. There were some parts of Van Etten’s set that were so good tonight that I was left with a longing to experience them again, and ever so slightly sorrowful that I will have to wait until the next time. Good things…as they like to say.
Review: Chris Curtis
Photo: Ian Dunn