Via a fast walk through relatively sketchy neighbourhood we find La Maroquinere on a crisp Parisienne evening. From the wonderful bar with its smoker-populated courtyard we descend in to the belly, to a small, dark, square, tiered room with a low ceiling supported by wide pillars. It’s an unusual space – a mini square amphitheatre – but we begin at the top tier at the back, learning fast that if you don’t want the sound bouncing all over you you’d best drop down to the ground floor where everything’s warmer and more even.
Touring a career-best album (this year’s Are We There), Sharon Van Etten’s five-piece band is in the middle of the second leg of this extensive tour, with another leg yet to take her into April and to Irish shores. Tonight, however, we get to see her in the city of lights and the twinkling beginning of ‘Afraid of Nothing’ which opens the show suits the skyline above. We are immediately thrown by the sound which makes bits of the separate instruments as well as some feedback issues and popping from cables on the ground disturbed by piles of coats being put on the front of the stage.
As we get to a much better-sounding location in the room, and as she reaches ‘Tarifa’, a stand-out from the album, the gremlins get put to bed. We can now relax and give ourselves over to the song’s beautiful drawl and Hammond organ sound. On keyboard and backing vocals, longtime touring partner Heather Woods Broderick is a perfect harmonic accompaniment to Van Etten. Not all the rest of the band seem to click in as well though and in some instances the bass and drums sit a little imperfectly in the live mix.
The night is mostly an outing for the new album and we even get a track that didn’t make the final cut – ‘I Don’t Want To Let You Down’, described by her unfairly as “a song I didn’t put on the album because I’m an asshole”. Maybe not perfectly appropriate for Are We There’s mood but a very strong, meaty track topped by some screeching guitar to close.
There’s a shyness in Van Etten that perhaps stops her grabbing a gig by the horns, maybe there’s a tiredness in this long touring schedule too. It’s endearing in its way too, though the endless guitar tuning is like dead air between these beautiful songs and, unwarranted, you fall back to earth. But we certainly have our highs. 2010’s ‘Don’t Do It’ could be her voice at its very best, soaring uphill through the song from a cracked delicate beginning to a slow-motion peak. You do quietly feel that they could shred the end of it up even more live. Then she swaps over to the piano for the heart-cracking ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ with Broderick’s harmonies piercing the flesh.
The polite gallic crowd never raise much of a stir, though clearly show a lot of appreciation between songs. From the stage there may be little to feed off for a somewhat tired band yet Van Etten returns for the closing songs alone and on piano for the most naked of songs, ‘I Know’, a paean to losing the balance between someone you love and something you love. The band return and the discordant guitar leads to ‘Serpents’, Tramp’s raw stomper. There’s such an energy in it that you crave for the extended wig-out ending, a never ending chord sequence, drums overturned and a sweat drenched band but our fantasy will have to stay in the tin tonight, though even still it’s a perfect punchy closer.
We discuss and lament a little afterwards – the sound and venue beyond their control, and a disconnection which may have been two-way was breached often by songs that will always get the better of you. There is a lot of love in this world for Sharon Van Etten so it’s no surprise the keepers of that flame – to include Nick Cave and The National, as well as ourselves here on this night – want to see the support swell the venues, and her spark light up even brighter before us. We all know how good she is so we set the bar high, but we’ll catch it all falling into place live one day and much like the arrival of Are We There we’ll know that this is what we were waiting for all along.
Sharon Van Etten photographed by Wallendorff.
Sharon Van Etten plays Whelan’s Dublin on April 23rd, 2015.