Wednesday 27th March, 2019
I fell in love with Sharon Van Etten pretty much the 1st time I heard Seventeen on BBC Radio 6 Music. An arresting voice that came out of the radio and grabbed me. I was really excited when I saw she was playing Bristol, bought a ticket and waited eagerly.
Come the night and I was in pain and badly in need of rest. I knew I had to risk things getting worse, and dosed up on painkillers I headed out. I knew Sharon was going to be special.
When I arrived things looked good, the venue staff were helpful and showed me to my reserved seat (I’d emailed in advance knowing I wouldn’t manage standing). It was high, which was a struggle to get onto, but would hopefully afford me a good view.
Support was from Golden Filter, who I really rather liked. Jarring electronic pop, beautifully lit and with a great aesthetic going on, I’d happily see them again.
This was when things started to go a bit wrong. I needed to use the ladies and so had to get through the crowd, which had grown considerably. Weaving through them, alone, and at 5ft tall, is daunting at the best of times, but when you are hurting, doubly so. When I reached them the toilets were disgusting, I’ve been at cleaner festivals!
I was jostled and knocked a fair few times on the walk there and back, almost falling once or twice and when I got back to my seat I found the crowd around me uncomfortably busy. Despite the chair next to me being empty (I didn’t have a companion) people were standing in front of it and leaning against it, making it knock into me. There were also people standing on the stairs in front of that (which made me anxious as surely that is a fire escape route and should be kept clear?) Essentially I was blocked in place, couldn’t move or see which wasn’t what I was expecting from a reserved area for disabled patrons. And no I didn’t feel able to say anything, that takes considerable confidence and I was alone, feeling pretty vulnerable.
Despite being told security would be “right over there” to provide any assistance I could not reach them nor could they see me or patrol the area as it was too full of people. During the concert there were 2 occasions when help was required, security didn’t even see the 1st one, where thankfully the lad who fainted got back up and was assisted out by his friends. The 2nd incident happened at the end and was noticed from the stage, but it took a while for the person to be reached as security couldn’t get through the crowd. I will be taking this up with the venue as there were enough issues concerning safety to make me wary about returning.
If I could have safely left the venue at this point I may well have done. More than anything I wish I hadn’t been alone. Having someone to guide me through the crowd, to have a polite word with people and generally keep me calm would have made the world of difference. As would the reserved seating area being properly set aside and the needs of disabled patrons taken into fully into account.
I wasn’t at all ready for Sharon. I wasn’t at all ready to engage and enjoy. I’ve no real memory of the band coming on, or of the first few tracks at all.
At some point the crowd in front of me parted enough that I was able to see Sharon (yay!) but not the rest of the band. This helped. I was no longer in a crowded room of people listening to a loud radio (how it can feel when you can’t see who is on stage) but I was able to see Sharon’s face as she sang, watch her play the keys or guitar and begin to feel the connection between performer and audience. Then. Then she played a cover of a Sinead O’Connor track that has always left me in pieces. A reasonably obscure and very political song. One written by a woman in immense pain, with a heart full of love and pain and anger. Just Sharon and the keyboard. It floored me. Cut through all the rest of the crap and hit me deeply in the heart and the emotions. Tears started to flow and flood and then I couldn’t see Sharon through the mascara stuck to my glasses, but I could feel every ounce of emotion poured into that song. To go from that into Seventeen was another emotional sucker punch. Sharon’s voice. When she hits those notes, the wail, the scream, the visceral rawness of it, all superbly controlled, well, it was something pretty special. Female to its core, it speaks to and of every young woman.
The encore was opened with I Told You Everything, which just chills me. I feel Sharon’s pain, love, redemption and hope in my bones when I hear this song. It is gently sung without being gentle, its power imparted with sparseness and suspense.
At the start of this gig I wanted to escape. At the end I wanted to stay. Sharon Van Etten you did that. Your music pulled me up, out and through the other side. It was almost worth the pain. Ah, fuck it, it was worth the pain for Black Boys On Mopeds alone. That was stunning. Simply stunning.
I hope that one day I get to see Sharon again in better circumstances. If she can be this good when I’m struggling, I wonder how transportive and transformative her music could be if I were well.