There is a well-known school of thought that selecting a god awful opening act will make a headliner appear far superior by comparison. Not that she needed any assistance in this regard, but Richard Youngs’ agonising supporting set certainly set things up nicely tonight. This meandering performance largely consisted of single lines repeated ad nauseam in warbling a cappella numbers and mercifully shorter songs on which he plucked a guitar in the manner of a restless teenager practicing in their bedroom before abruptly finishing whenever the mood took him. To give credit where it is due, Youngs has found a note he can hit well and is determined to get good value from it. Considering the sincere praise for his work from Van Etten later in the evening, there is a chance that his gigs do not always resemble a sitcom writer’s version of performance art. We can hope.
Sharon Van Etten manages to endear herself somewhat more effectively to the Oran Mor crowd with a set made up mostly of tracks from Tramp and a token few from the previous release Epic. She comes across as the kind of talented, spirited and awkward young woman that Woody Allen casts to fall inexplicably in love with him. She seems genuinely shy and often uneasy on the stage but also sharp, determined and at her most comfortable standing a foot or so from the mic, jaw strained open, pushing everything she has out into the thick air of the basement venue. Perhaps with this in mind, the band (having arrived onstage in almost silent understatement) began with ‘All I Can’, the slow-burning heart of that recent album which builds to a bellowing plea for forgiveness & recognition. Working her way through several more songs before attempting any dialogue with the crowd who have, up to this point, been hushed and respectful things start to change as the New Jersey native engages in Gaelic toasts, impressions of Tom Cruise and even feigns introducing Mr Bernstein himself before playing ‘Leonard’.
Slowly becoming more comfortable with the room, Van Etten begins imparting little snippets about the origins of songs in the set, about moving to New York (‘Give Out’) and trying to give up smoking after a break-up (‘Kevin’s’). The audience get braver too and a mid-set treat of ‘Much More Than That’ from her debut Because I Was In Love is greeted with the biggest applause of the night followed by a lone, challenging voice from the front, “so, ye can sing canyae?”.
She can indeed. Her voice is drenched in the history of bittersweet folk singers before her, but, touring these parts for the first time with a full band, she finds more opportunities to throw herself fully behind the more urgent moments in the set. With the back story of this album, it is unsurprising how well she conveys the fragility, desperation and poignancy in these lyrics with her sour, drawling wail.
In truth, this isn’t a gig to blow you away, it’s largely too subtle for that. But, just like Tramp, it slowly gets under your skin in ways you don’t expect. Empathy is key to the equation and she effortlessly makes you feel as though you’re in this together. Praise has been heaped on Sharon Van Etten from people in the know for quite some time (not least from Bon Iver and The National) but with a masterpiece of an album now in her possession, it feels like you are watching a special talent at a defining moment in their career and that lasting, rewarding feeling is as much as anyone can hope to take home from a night such as this.
Photo: Damien McGlynn