Sharon Van Etten – The Mill, Birmingham

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

Prince Charles described Birmingham modernist Central Library looking like somewhere books should be incinerated not loved. Firstly, he was wrong as concrete is great! But music can be a tough love at nightclub venue The Mill in the city’s (really) brightly coloured Digbeth suburb. High-vis bouncers guard a de-facto indoor festival arena, and bossy metal fences guard musicians from their fans with a clear and intentional distance.

There’s a clearer, more intentional, distance. Sharon Van Etten’s described the tension between wanting to be a positive role model and no longer being able to let well-meaning fans use her shows as therapy during signing sessions, where they'd queue to share their stories. This means fewer fun anecdotes for the almost sold-out crowd – her learning the British nickname “Shazza” during an earlier visit is a favourite! – and a reminder public performers, especially of this deeply personal work, have the right to not be public property.

Hair-blowing-in-the-wind thrill ride ‘Seventeen’ is one of those American coming-of-age anthems about freedom that Europeans enviously try our very best to, but can never really, imagine. Van Etten’s music’s recently more electronic and shoegaze-y but she loves her big red guitar, and the melty melodies of ‘Tarifa’ are the best comfort blanket for those still catching up with her musical progression of ‘Jupiter 4’s modernist drone sound. All reassuringly with the familiar dusty and sorrowful voice.

The set pivots on Sinéad O'Connor’s story of white people’s violence on black people, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’. To the front, a white boy of subject Colin Roach’s age who's been singing along to every song doesn’t sing along to this one. But he’s listening, and listening is most important. Because white people listen to white people who commit this violence when tragically they won’t listen to black people who suffer it.

Heather Woods Broderick, who can officially play every instrument in the entire world, is the touring band’s most familiar member and accepts the nicest applause. Her harmonies with her friend Shazza are just beautiful on ‘Malibu’, a massive heartbreaker with massive synths. After the encore (“If you clap long enough maybe we’ll come back!”) ‘Serpents’ is Van Etten’s Absolute Banger, its guitars and voices are absolutely furious but – somehow – perfectly in control. Then all friends on stage, arms around one another, give a closing bow. Bridging the clear and intentional, respectfully affectionate, distance.

Sharon Van Etten’s album Remind Me Tomorrow is out now.

Press header photo: Ryan Pfluger.

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