Four years after her first tour stop in Auckland, Sharon Van Etten returned to the city to perform one sold-out show at the Powerstation. Van Etten was joined by her full band, as well as usual accompanist Heather Woods Broderick. The supporting act was experimental maestro Michael Morley. Van Etten talked generously of Morley more than once during her performance, not only to thank him but also mentioned him as a longstanding inspiration.
Michael Morley, a single, suited figure, sat at the front of his stage intensely pouring over his guitar. He gave a meditative performance. It felt like he rarely raised his eyes to the audience. His playing made me think of a continuous stream of thought; melancholic chords were quickly followed by lighter ones. It was like the soundtrack to a 1960’s existentialist film. There were moments where Morley sang but the lyrics were indecipherable and I had to watch him more closely to make sure the sound was coming from his lips and not a background noise or a back-up singer in the shadows of the stage. His voice was like hearing a conversation in the next room; it mimicked a natural sound. I didn’t know his music before tonight, but there was art to it which was immediately accessible to me. Morley intermittently bowed his head along the curve of his guitar; it was intense music and really warranted a silent crowd, in my opinion. When you thought there may be a pause or stop in the music, signalling another track, the stream of sound tinkled onward. So, when he did stop it felt abrupt.
Van Etten, velvet-jacketed, appeared, the quintessential rock god... her voice was clear and the harmonies with Woods Broderick gave the song a folk edged depth.
Then the crowd gathered, anticipation brimming and the din of chatter vanished as the band came on stage, whilst a Portishead track played them on. They were one of my favourite bands in the 1990’s and the evening already felt well orchestrated, a little bit of theatre to it, I’d say. Van Etten’s band were a five-piece, all in. Van Etten, velvet-jacketed, appeared, the quintessential rock god. The opening song was Jupiter 4, her voice was clear and the harmonies with Woods Broderick gave the song a folk edged depth. Van Etten’s voice was brooding and at other times it was like an incantation as she displayed her enviable range in Kate Bush-esque runs. She really was fantastic live and her vocal ability was best on display in some of the more folk and trip-hop influenced tracks.
What made this evening more special was that the sound at the Powerstation was superb.
Breaking now and then to reply to heckling fans, the set proceeded. One member of the audience memorably shouted ‘We love you bitch’, to which van Etten replied ‘I love you bitch, hello New Zealand’. In her conversation, there was humour, confidence as well as a gentle agenda of wishing for peace and love. Perhaps this had a political bent - or it was a nod to difficult times, which required us to unite: personally or in the public sphere. When One Day was played I was lulled into the Americana tone of the track, which evoked highways and sunny days. Van Etten moved between heavier tracks where her vocals vanished behind the instruments and then to songs like One Day and Malibu, where it took centre-stage. I think the angst-ridden, indie/rock melodies were my favourite.
About halfway through the set, the band went off stage and a single spotlight lit Van Etten on the keyboard. She introduced the track she was about to play as a cover of a song by an artist who was a longstanding inspiration of hers and a song that she had known throughout her life. The cover was Black Boys On Mopeds and the artist the mighty Sinéad O’Connor. The lyrics documented shocking news events of the 1980’s but were also prescient. Some of the lyrics were about places I knew in London and were evocative of real-life and ongoing struggles that many have. After this solo performance, Van Etten seemed to really connect to the crowd. She was energised by the song and continued with one of the favourites Seventeen singing to the front rows at times and drawing the crowd in. A heartfelt performance.
Van Etten took time to thank everyone that supported the tour process and the crowd for attending and told us how much she liked Auckland. I hope that she’ll be back with a few more dates in the future. There was an encore which finished with Love More, the set had been just shy of an hour and a half. The final sombre and hearty track finished and we all poured out onto the rainy street, the evening had vanished and I was left with a feeling of having seen an immense vocalist and authentic artist who continually drew on various sources of inspiration in her songwriting, perhaps this also matches her ever-evolving sense of self.