REVIEW: Sharon Van Etten live at the Powerstation

Photo: ZED Photos

Brooklyn singer Sharon Van Etten delivered a wonderfully dark and passionate performance to a reverent crowd at Auckland's Powerstation last night. RNZ Music's Waveney Russ was there.

Sharon Van Etten has stopped performing her saddest songs live; I mean the really sad ones – guitar-driven tracks born from mistrust, co-dependency and an abusive relationship. The songs from her earlier records that laid her wounds bare, frequently to the point of audience discomfort.

Instead, the Brooklyn musician presents us with a synth-driven collection of buoyantly nostalgic, introspective and meta-confessional tracks off her latest release Remind Me Tomorrow.

She opens with 'Jupiter 4' (aptly named after the synthesizer used on most of the album), showcasing her operatic vocals as she sings of a love that "is for real".

Van Etten makes time for every track on Remind Me Tomorrow, the shoegaze-heavy songs often leaving her with no instrument on stage. Quite different from her solo guitar efforts of the past, she’s using piano, drones and the nostalgic hum of vintage synths.

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Launching into the cantering breakbeat of fan-favourite 'Comeback Kid', Van Etten hunches over the microphone with a four-piece band to either side, a pale face emerging through shaggy locks reminiscent of fellow indie-rockstar Courtney Barnett.

While there’s no melancholia tonight, there certainly is an apocalyptic atmosphere in the tightly packed Powerstation.

The reverence of the crowd during the slow burn of ‘No One’s Easy To Love’, is unparalleled and somewhat unexpected. And the first few gut-wrenching chords of ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up' (reminding us she can still play the guitar), are met with the impassioned attention of a thousand earnest observers.

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The room remains motionless and doting as she plays ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’, and while other artists may encourage uproar at the start of a crowd favourite, Van Etten makes it clear that she doesn’t mind if we remain stationary all night. She isn't here to get a performance back from her audience.

Van Etten's angular limbs regularly gesture towards the audience like the claws of an old crone. It’s reminiscent Aldous Harding’s beloved 'Horizon'. But she never loses the familiar warmth that’s part of both her on- and off-stage personality.

She exudes as much love as she receives, and when she addresses us, it's to compliment her four-piece band (Charley Damski, Jorge Balbi, Devin Hoff and Heather Woods Broderick); reply to audience members cries of "We love you bitch!"; or to send messages of love to the human race.

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'Malibu', her transient tribute to late 20th-century youth, offers up a storm, before Van Etten brings the thunder down with edgy, apocalyptic singles 'Hands' and 'Memorial Day'. She breathes new life into the latter as she runs her fingers through chimes and holds a tambourine to her hip.

One of Remind Me Tomorrow’s most successful singles, the Springsteen-esque 'Seventeen', serves as a reminder of just how broad the appeal of Van Etten's latest work really is. Audience members close to the age of seventeen are offered the capricious lens of youth, while older ones can tap into the nostalgia Van Etten carries throughout her new record.

"I know what you're gonna be," she goads with full vocal power, "You'll crumple it up just to see /Afraid that you'll be just like me!" kneeling front of stage and curling in on herself. She’s in anguish over what to hold on to and let go of when reflecting on her carefree vision of the past.

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Though new tracks challenge Van Etten's characteristic grace with a tinge of menace, the drama of older singles such as 'Tarifa', 'Stay' and 'Serpents' reward long-standing fans.

As the set heads towards its conclusion, Van Etten sings a solo piano cover of Sinéad O'Connor's “sadly still relevant" 1990 song about police brutality and racism.

'Black Boys on Mopeds', drills home the intention of Van Etten's latest live performances.

She’s upholding a universal hope. A hope that’s interlaced with the very real fear that the world could dive into uncontrollable chaos.

'Love More' draws the evening to a close. It’s a song about learning to love in spite of pain: "But time on you, it made me love, it made me love, it made me love more," she sings in mantra.

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"I'll send you away with a message of love Auckland, love one another and take care of one another." The audience hangs on each word the blue velvet and leather-clad superstar has to offer.

Despite the dark soul of the show, Van Etten's tender and generous performance gives hope that the ambiguity of love and humanity will lead us towards some kind of peace in the future.

She's left the really sad songs in the past, and is learning to let the storm clouds in her latest record roll on overhead.

With Van Etten sermonising, the anesthetised mess of life, love and complex history seem worth it in the end.

This story first appeared on Radio New Zealand.