Sharon Van Etten & Tiny Ruins at Festival Gardens
Early in the evening, the finger-picked melodies of Tiny Ruins sent out small ripples that manifested in the swaying shoulders of the audience. The wandering rhythm of ‘The Ballad of the Hanging Parcel’ was driven by singer Hollie Fullbrook’s reflections of innocent childlike deceits, a sweetness alongside the melancholy of tracks such as ‘Old as the Hills’ from 2011's Some Were Meant for Sea.
The band’s reworking of Peg Leg Howell’s 1920s track ‘Rolling Mill Blues’ was a standout, as Alexander Freer’s rumbling drums and Cass Basil’s droning bass echoed through the gardens like a rolling storm. As the interpretation progressed, classic Georgia blues was transformed into an expansive soundscape, held back from a slip into something ambient by the strong anchor of Fullbrook’s vocals.
After the wonderful Tiny Ruins wrapped up we moved into the main event, the sublime Sharon van Etten.
Out on the open Festival Gardens stage, Sharon van Etten and her flawless band moved between intimate sounds and immense, synth-driven crescendos. Early in the evening the band broke into the fun and airy ‘Taking Chances’, followed by the acknowledgement of van Etten’s birthday, prompting a reflection on her disorganised Pisces nature. Without placing too much faith in horoscopes, it is not a stretch to position the amalgam of van Etten’s lush, almost symphonic synths, lilting vocals touching upon folk and blues traditions associated with Vashti Bunyan and Karen Dalton, and razing alter-90s guitars as the manifestation of those scattered Pisces traits.
Not that van Etten and her band are simply an amalgam of references. As the group eased into ‘Leonard’, a stand out from the 2012 release Tramp, van Etten’s unflinching “…I am bad at loving” soared into the warm night sky. This was not the last time van Etten’s vocal crescendos would trigger tremoring hands and shining eyes in the adoring crowd, with the aching track ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ punctuating the still evening air.
However, it was not all a 'wall of sound'. Halfway through the set van Etten was left standing alone to present an as-yet untitled track, described as a song for someone she missed. Van Etten was commanding, singing out her trademark emotive refrains over a bare track, which bore all the marks of intimacy. This still moment was followed by a surprise birthday cake, with cheers all round. These slight departures did not produce lulls in the momentum of the evening, but instead served to create a closeness that became immense during songs like the quaking ‘I Don’t Want to Let You Down’, with its almost industrial guitars backing harmonious vocals.
A set that hinted at the orchestral may have remained impermeable to audiences without the warmth of van Etten’s presence, evidenced by the joy of a birthday sing-a-long and her sincere acknowledgement of a suitably adoring crowd. When, as banter she says “here we are together” it was a beautiful, self-evident truth.
Without dwelling too much on the venue’s final year, it is undeniable that performances such as those delivered by Tiny Ruins and Sharon van Etten will come to define future memories of Festival Gardens, as the warm nights and warm performances engineered a sweet summer conviviality.