Whereas in most music shows the venue consists of a stage and an empty area for a crowd of adoring fans to gather, this was not the case with Sharon Van Etten at St. Georges church. At the front of the church there was no stage, but simply a slightly raised marble platform where the band were forced to set up between two oversized church organs. Not to mention the portrait of Jesus on the cross, looming over them as it hung from wires connected to the ceiling. Where there should have been a large space for the fans to gather, there were instead rows of chairs that looked as if they had been set up for a congregation rather than a gig, some even had the prayer cushions beneath them from their previous use during the day time. Christmas lights wound round the pillars supporting the upper floors and coloured lights adorned the stage area, transforming the otherwise cold church into a warm and intimate venue. Although the decision to change the venue from Brighton Corn Exchange to St. George’s church was last minute, it was clearly a decision well made, as Sharon Van Etten’s profound and intimate Ballads will undoubtedly feel right at home.
By the time blues-folk player Marisa Anderson had finished her set and warmed the crowd up with her heartfelt instrumentals (with accompanying back stories), the church hall has finally filled out and the crowd eagerly awaited Van Etten’s appearance on stage. At this point some of the more eager fans have abandoned their seats and took to sitting cross-legged at the front of the hall, directly facing where Van Etten would later be performing. As the lights dimmed and the band took to the stage, a cheer went up and Van Etten launched into her first song Afraid of Nothing from her hit album Are We There. No-one stood up from their seats; no-one sung along at the top of their voice; the entire crowd were enchanted as Van Etten lulled them into a dream like appreciation of her music.
As Van Etten cruised through hits such as Taking Chances and Tarifa, various heads in the crowd bobbed up and down in satisfaction along with her melancholy grooves. Van Etten’s charming monologues and amusing quips kept the emotional subject matter present in her songs from taking over, consequently making the entire experience far more laid back and comfortable. ‘This is our thanksgiving which is kind of crazy’ Van Etten tells the crowd, ‘I know you don’t give a shit about thanksgiving, but it means a lot [that] you give a shit about us, so thanks for being here’. While it’s clear the band were missing their families on such an important day, they didn’t let it affect their performance and played crowd favourite Your Love Is Killing Me to a wild round of applause before saying their goodbyes and promptly leaving the stage.
After receiving a standing ovation and 10 minutes of non-stop clapping Van Etten came back out alone for the encore, looking surprised that the crowd wanted more. By this stage everyone had abandoned their seats and were either sitting at the front or standing in the aisles desperate to get a good view. ‘Now you’re all standing up and I’m sitting down’ she quipped as she took a seat behind her keyboard, before beginning the heartfelt piano ballad I Love You but I’m Lost. The lack of barriers made the show feel less like a gig and more like a gathering of friends, so when Van Etten said her final goodbyes and left the stage she received the biggest round of applause that night.
Despite a few hits being shifted from the playlist (Serpents, Every Time The Sun Comes Up) for some obscure B-sides (Tell Me, I Don’t Want To Let You Down), Van Etten put on a truly captivating performance and the crowd went home safe in the assumption that tonight they witnessed something special.
By Matt Austin.