Saturday, November 29, 2014


St. George’s Church, in the Kemptown area of Brighton, was built in 1826 at the behest of Thomas Read Kemp. Kemp was building homes above the eastern cliffs in the early 19th century and, not content with knocking up a significant residential area and naming it after himself, he needed the pinnacle of any Georgian vanity development, a parish church. Not that the church belonged to the parish, or even the diocese. In those days, building a church was an investment opportunity with guaranteed rental income and the possibility of selling on at a profit. It was not until the end of the century when, after 50 years of private ownership by the Peel family, it was sold to a trust on behalf of the local congregation.

Fast-forward through a century of Christian worship to the diversification of the present day, and it is also a thriving community centre, café and music venue. Local promoters, Melting Vinyl, have been staging events at the 550-capacity brick and stucco neoclassical church for the past 13 years and the fantastic acoustics have lent themselves to the delicate and emotional sounds of Sigur Ros, Bonnie Prince Billy, Iron and Wine, Tindersticks and Edwyn Collins.

On Thursday night, Sharon Van Etten, an artist who wears her heart not just on her sleeve but as a jagged, broken crown upon her head, fitted perfectly into that roster of special performers. With their tender harmonies and slow-moving arcing melodies, Van Etten’s piano and acoustic guitar-led folk and country-tinged songs are so fragile and moving that, at times, they feel as though they will overwhelm you completely.

Van Etten’s breakthrough album, Tramp, produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, first brought her to wider attention in this country in 2012. If The National’s involvement gives you some clue to the emotional timbre of her music, her support slot on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 2013 North American tour should confirm it. The New Jersey-born but Brooklyn-based singer is currently touring her fourth studio album, this year’s Are We There, and it is this that she mostly draws on for her set at St. George's.

With a four-piece band of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums behind her, Van Etten’s ability to describe the pain of everyday life on a grand scale gives her music an epic (the title of her second album) quality. Opening with the first two tracks from the new album, the tone of yearning and heartache is immediately established. On Afraid Of Nothing, she longingly sings “I can’t wait ‘til we’re afraid of nothing” and on Taking Chances, in her familiar second person, she reflects, “About to leave/Even I’ve taken my chances on you”. But sometimes the desire breaks through, as on the intoxicating Tarifa, when she simply declares “everyone else pales”.

In the middle of the set, Van Etten appears a little disconcerted: a broken guitarist’s string and being away from the States on Thanksgiving the explanation. But she is soon back in her stride, creating beautiful harmonies with keyboard player Heather Woods Broderick. In the gorgeous church setting, her repentance on Our Love – “I am a sinner/I have sinned” – seems wholly appropriate, as does the penance she catalogues on Your Love Is Killing Me: “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see you”.

When Van Etten returns, seated alone at the piano for a solitary encore of the overwrought “I Love You But I’m Lost”, the audience gets to its feet and crowds round the altar utterly rapt as she leaves us with “tear stains on the last page”. If those church-building men from the 19th century were so full of self-esteem and certainty, I am happy to give thanks to be living in a time when some of us are not afraid to show that we are mostly full of confusion and doubt.

Picture by Jason Smith

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