live review: Sharon Van Etten, London Scala, 16th May 2012

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Due to the remarkable reaction to her third album 'Tramp', Sharon Van Etten finds herself back in London again. A mere two months after she sold out Cargo,she has graduated to selling out the Scala, and it's no surprise that on her next visit she will probably fill Shepherd's Bush Empire.

I'm not alone in thinking that 'Tramp' is one of the records of the year so far, and I would've forgiven her for just running through it tonight. She begins with faithful versions of 'All I Can' and 'Warsaw', which suggest that might be the case, but she is quick to revisit her earlier albums as well.
She seems shy and a little bit over-awed by the size of the crowd tonight, and she copes with her nerves by rambling quite a lot between songs. This is actually way more endearing than you might think. After 'Peace Signs' she makes jokes about the title sounding like “pissing” or “pizza”, and this seems to ease the on-stage nerves, as they launch into 'Save Yourself' which is more smooth country-rock than the edgy drones that dominate 'Tramp'

'Kevin's' is the first really amazing moment – such a bleakly beautiful song and her voice is as clear as a bell. This leads into some clever looping of her voice with her backing vocalist and on-stage sparring partner Heather Woods Broderick before they go into 'Don't Do It'.
It seems even sceptics in the audience are won over by this stage and some banter with the crowd reveals that Sharon is a big fan of 'the Office' and “Dawn Tinsley, receptionist!”
This lightens the mood before an intense 'Give Out', which for me is one of the most songs about a relationship I've heard in a long time. (I went on about it here, if you are interested!)

The droning beginning of 'Ask' turns into another great vocal performance, and then the band leave her alone as she plays 'Tornado' from her debut album with just her and her guitar.
More audience interaction leads to an unrequited request for 'My Sharona' and a false start for 'Leonard' which makes us all laugh. Again, that is a marked contrast to the song, which is another one of her extraordinary moments, Sharon and Heather's voices entwine beautifully on that brave refrain, “ I am bad at loving you.” To find that sentiment in a song still floors me, even after several months of hearing it.

'Serpents' is the big rocky tune and very much a crowd pleaser, and she reveals that she wrote it “in a basement after listening to too much PJ Harvey".
'I'm Wrong' and 'Joke or a Lie' end the set in unconventional fashion, heavily based on ambient drone, and the latter in particular is perhaps the most impressive sound the band make all night.

Of course they do return for an encore. They play 'One Day', another country-rocker,and I find myself thinking how good this would sound with J Mascis noodling along with it – surely a possibility given J's admiration for Sharon's songs. On the subject of admirers, she finishes the night with the beautiful 'Love More', which I believe Bon Iver have been known to cover.
Sharon van Etten won a few people over tonight. She can come back and play in London town any time she likes.

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