“The most important lesson I learned in life is to let it in”, Sharon Van Etten tells us during her performance for Edinburgh’s International Festival at Leith Theatre. And if you internalised this lesson for thi gig, you definitely came out with a piece of magic in your pocket.
Leith Theatre is a cosy neo-classicist building with its loose flakes of paint on the ceiling eerily illuminated by underwater hues of blue, yellow and lilac. Opening for Sharon is her long-time collaborator Heather Woods Broderick, whose solemn, inquisitive harmonies sound like they should be listened to with your window open wide.
As she finishes her set of songs, Sharon walks onto the stage accompanied by blood-red lights. She looks like a raven fledgling out to party in black jeans, a glittering shirt, red lips and her eyes half-covered by her dark fringe. In absolute contrast to her role as mute Rachel in The OA, Sharon raises her voice with infectious energy: she gambols across the stage with a somewhat Cher-like oomph, nudges her bandmates and disappears under a keyboard to play around with some distortion knobs.
My favourite image is Sharon balancing a set of bar chimes in one hand and dance with the other hand’s thumb and pinkie spread apart like a witch casting a spell for Memorial Day from her latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow. The lyrics speak of resilience and responsibility (“Will you ever hold your ground?/Will I ever pull your teeth?/If you barely stand/How do I let you leave?”) and you get the feeling that she has come very far. “We are all in really good places in our lives, in case you’re worried” she lets the audience know – the sound tonight might seem fierce, but the performance is radiant with an underlying courage. Together with funky ingredients like drones, new beats and a gentle back-to-the-90s feel, Remind Me Tomorrow adds some mature, three-dimensional confidence to the vulnerability of her work so far. And it feels so damn badass, too.
Mixing songs from previous albums like Epic (2010), Tramp (2012) or Are We There (2014) into the gig, Sharon provides a strong feel for how much her style has evolved. Performing the poppy One Day on a beautiful Tarantino-blood-red guitar (“It’s one of my least favourite songs, but it’s my mum’s favourite”), Sharon adds some edge to the head-bobbing melody as she stands illuminated by a halo of white light. Tarifa feels like a fantastic driving-into-the-sunset song – an imperfect, second-hand sunset covered in dust and liquid gold. The mantra of the line ‘we all make mistakes’ from All I Can keeps the crowd spellbound as it spirals into a crescendo.
And to round up this glow, Sharon gifts the audience with a special surprise: as the rest of the band suddenly leave the stage, she stays on by herself to perform a song that, she claims, has changed her life forever in the 90s. Within the first couple of chords, the crowd recognises it immediately as The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith. The audience goes mental. As the cheering, clapping and singing-along rises to wall-shaking volume, something magical happens: for a moment, you feel like you’re among family. For a post-gig feeling to go home with in your pocket, that’s as good as it gets.
Photos courtesy of Gaelle Beri