Sharon Van Etten LIVE @ Manchester Cathedral

When Are We There, the fourth album by Sharon Van Etten came out back in May this year, it felt like a singer shaking of the labels of comparison (PJ Harvey) and the shadow of special guests that surrounded her former work, to emerge with a sound entirely her own. Not that 2012’s breakthrough Tramp was a let-down by any means, but more so tainted by the media fascination on its myriad contributors who couldn’t resist to be a part of it (Beirut, The National, Wye Oak and more). With the release of the new LP and a distinctly sparser and electronic imbued sound, it was clear this time Van Etten wanted to go it alone again but in a completely new direction. The results, much like tonight’s performance and its unique setting, are utterly spectacular.

Assembling with her band basked in the golden glow of the church altar, Van Etten takes to the keys to ease into the slow-burning Are We There opener: “Afraid of Nothing”, which ignites the fizz of expectation from the get-go. The track’s gentle descent into the refrained guitar signature of its album companion “Taking Chances” and the rousing chorus of “Tarifa” in a row, makes clear early her intent to give the new material the attention it deserves this evening.

“I’m sorry guys, I just got a bit distracted by all the stain glass for a moment there…”  trails off the Brooklynite as she gets lost in the spectral reflections and ornate shadows cast by the stage lights as they dance across the 15th century architecture Manchester Cathedral. Clearly humbled by the occasion, it’s one of many inter-song conversations extended from the singer’s warm stage personality and a feature that provides an endearing and perfectly calculated counterpoint to the density of the bleak world  she immerses you in her song-writing.

And bleak, is no understatement. Each song lifted from the new record feels like they could have been saved for the confession box, as lyrics revealing a hopeless and torturous relationship are delivered with heartbreaking conviction. Best of all is “Break Me”, Doug Keith’s guitar playing culminating with Van Etten’s impassioned vocals that soar defiantly beyond the mire to combat the spectre that haunts the song. “He can break me, with one hand to my head”, she cries with a gusto so searing that it feels as if dust settled for hundreds of years is shaken from the enclaves of the gothic arches in which it has settled.

But the secret to van Etten’s success is her penchant for melody behind the misery. Van Etten jokes that the melodic electronica of album stand-out “Our Love” is her ” attempt at a dance song”. “You can dance if you want to though” she adds meekly. When amplified for the occasion it’s fair to say that its sumptuous textures wouldn’t be far amiss in an Air set.

The older material is distinctly sidelined somewhat this evening as the newer more refined songs take their place, yet tracks including  “Keep” and “Save Yourself” by no means disappoint. Proceedings reach a truly astonishing climax as a version of “Don’t Do it” proves as Epic as the title of the 2009 album from which it is taken suggests it should be; all grizzled guitar sonics and bellowing vocals.

But just in case the evening hadn’t lodged itself in your memory for good, the band return to the stage to close out the night with an awe-striking performance of Tramp‘s “Give Out”. Summoning all of her emotion and drawing in from the splendorous surroundings around her, Van Etten delivers more séance than song. Fleshing out the original’s creaky countrified arrangements with grandiose instrumentation the track towers with confidence. An illuminated vortex of blue lights swirl in a white cloud of dry ice that rushes through the cathedral’s halls before finally encircling songstress as she bitterly howls the mantra like chorus: “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city, you’re why I’ll need to leave”. A spell binding end, to a spell binding performance.

Sharon Van Etten may have taken a risk in going it alone, but with a performance as spell binding as tonight’s, it may well have been the best decision of her career. Stunning.

Rating: 5/5

Words: Thom Williams