It’s testament to Sharon Van Etten’s increasing popularity that tonight’s Vicar Street show was originally booked in Whelan’s, a venue less than a third of the size. It’s not full but an ambitious jump nonetheless.
With family in town from the States, and on-stage claims of Irish heritage (sure who doesn’t claim they’re a little Irish when here) it makes tonight feel a bit like a homecoming. A homecoming that has Van Etten in a jovial mood; joking about leaving a suggestion box on the merch stand for all the crowd comments she can’t make out, and enjoying some back and forth between performers and attendees. Her records are filled with intimate tales and recollections of the darker facets of relationships gone wrong. Here, her on-stage banter sits as a complete contrast to her song’s subject matter.
Afraid of Nothing doesn’t so much kick things off as it eases us in. It slowly gathers momentum until it becomes a mid-tempo, chug-along that perfectly sets the scene for this evening. A plodding bassline initiates Talking Chances along with some Dad-esque dancing from Van Etten, once again reaffirming her endearing, goofball personalit6y. It’s repetitive drums border on hypnotic as the Omnichord’s hollow-sounding chords sit below snarling guitars, giving the song more menace than on record. Your Love is Killing Me morphs into a behemoth of a song in a live setting. Rousing, tumbling toms lead the charge as Van Etten lists the variety of bodily mutilations needed to separate herself from someone, as cascading washes of sound swell and crash atop one another.
While it may be a cliché to say that music sounds better live, tonight with Van Etten, it’s wholeheartedly the case. Returning to the records after the gig, they sound subdued.
Not everything is a homerun, however. One heckler – who must have checked her manners in with her coat – cuts the anecdotal introduction to Ask short. Then at times, her lyrics stray into an obvious territory. Such as on Save Yourself, with its repeated refrain of “You’re just like everyone else”. However, for every lyrical misstep, there’s a heap of killer lines to make up for it. Like Afraid of Nothing‘s “You told me the day, That you show me your face, We’d be in trouble for a long time”.
Tonight’s highlight comes in the form of new track I Don’t Want to Let You Down. It could be taken as a sign of things to come for Van Etten. It’s no Walking On Sunshine, but compared to many of the tracks performed tonight, it’s one of the more optimistic. From the tempo to the lyrical content to the artwork (clean, airy and white compared to her usual imposing black) to the bordering-on-outrageous blazing guitar solo. It’s a frenzied breakaway from the rest of the set. That leaves us wondering where Van Etten will go next.