words: Sarah Rix // photos: Lucas Packett @lucas_packett_photography
“It’s easy to forget the weight of the world in these moments and to feel a communal sense of awe and wonderment.”
There are times when it can be nice to take a break from an artist. Case in point: Sharon Van Etten, an unquestionably talented American artist who’s taken a dramatic shift.
We’ll get to that – though first it’s worth mentioning BATTS, the night’s opener. Playing a stripped-down solo set in support of 2019’s The Grand Tour, the Melbourne-based Tanya Batt was revelling in the moment of both opening for Sharon Van Etten and playing the picturesque Hamer Hall.
“I actually ride past this place everyday on the way to work,” she told the crowd, in reference to her pays-the-bills hustle at a theatre. “I never thought I would play on this stage.”
It’s a room suited to voices that soar and, juxtaposed against her sparse guitar strumming, it worked wonders for BATTS, particularly on tracks like “Changes” and “Gun”.
While she was, perhaps, preaching to the choir about the needs to show up and support musicians as means of an introduction to Gillian Welsh’s “Everything is Free”, it’ll be very interesting to see her translate the set into a production with a proper five-piece backing band. It’s not too long a wait, either, with an upcoming headlining show at Howler on June 28.
Sharon Van Etten’s emergence onto the stage is a blast of everything. Flanked by a three-piece backing band, it’s abundantly clear from the outset: this woman slays.
Van Etten’s first three songs – “Jupiter 4”, “Comeback Kid”, and “No One’s Easy to Love” – all come from 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow, her fifth studio album. They’re the type of songs you don’t just listen to in a live setting. You feel them, too, quaking your very core as they rumble up through your ribcage and bounce between your ear canals to your toes. “Hands”, with its jarring mechanical instrumentals is an absolute jolt.
If you’ve seen Van Etten on previous album tours, you may be surprised by the turn. Gone is the strummed guitar and country timbre. In its place, plenty of bass, drums and synth lines.
It’s a well-handled shift she’s conscious of, to be sure – all executed so precisely and emotively by her and her band. The new wall-of-sound approach also serves as an excellent counterpoint to the moments when she does pick up a guitar (prefacing it by telling the audience “I wanted to show you that I can still do it”) for older tracks like “One Day”, from 2010’s Epic.
The slowed moments were appreciated by the Melbourne audience, including a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys On Mopeds”. It was a song choice that tied into the big theme of the night for Van Etten: her search for hope and a renewed faith in humanity.
“I’m a new mother,” she said as she took her place behind a keyboard. “My son turned two in March. With all the love I have for him, there is a fear of the future.”
Interestingly, the feared future is something that can be tied into one of Van Etten’s contemporaries – St. Vincent, another artist pushing the boundaries of electronic-meets-guitar indie rock. It’s also, evidently, more systemic than that with much of the audience wondering the same about all the things yet to come.
Four years since she’d last been to Melbourne and on the last show of her Australian tour, Van Etten and her band brought Hamer Hall to a standing ovation. Though predicting the future remains an impossibility, it’s safe to say that the journey Van Etten’s been on over the last 12 years of releasing music has been a rewarding one to watch.
It was an absolute stunner of a show, delivered so perfectly in a picturesque venue. It’s easy to forget the weight of the world in these moments and to feel a communal sense of awe and wonderment. Van Etten ended her set with the sweet “Love More”, asking the crowd for one favour in its introduction: to take the energy in the room and spread it with the rest of the world. She’ll be doing it, no doubt. One won-over crowd at a time.