Sharon Van Etten’s tour with Tennis kicked off in Toronto last night, and it’s quite possible that the Phoenix has never been filled with so much earnest sincerity for a continuous period of time.
Tennis – fronted by Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley (now oft-referred to as “the husband-and-wife duo), accompanied by a bassist/keyboardist and drummer – emerged quietly onstage and launched into a well-rounded half-hour set consisting of selections from both their albums (Cape Dory and Young & Old). Light on in-between banter, Tennis let their songs speak for themselves. Moore did note that they were very excited to be touring with Sharon Van Etten and that since this show was the first of the tour, they were looking forward to watching her set.
Their live performance didn’t stray far from the studio versions of their songs, but to witness the sheer concentration demonstrated by Patrick Riley hunched over his guitar and Moore’s lovely singing with her eyes closed at the keyboard were testaments of their sincere delivery. For those who dismissed their debut album as gimmicky because of its overall sailing/travelling theme, Tennis’ live performance showcased that they are a talented band. “Petition” and “Marathon” drew the loudest cheers, but the audience’s continual enthusiastic dancing made it clear that Tennis wasn’t simply a throwaway supporting act for Sharon Van Etten.
When Van Etten took the stage, she did so similarly to Tennis – quietly. The hushed venue was so quiet – in awe, perhaps – as Van Etten adjusted her mic and guitar. With a smile, she said, almost shyly, “Hello. It’s nice to be back in Toronto,” before she and her band began to play.
To the right of the stage, random filmed images were projected onto a screen. Later in the set, Van Etten asked the audience if they were watching – “Don’t watch me! Watch the screen instead!” – she said with a laugh. She explained the videos and images were submitted via her website of things fans “thought were beautiful.”
The juxtaposition of Van Etten’s musical delivery and between-song banter was noticeable, to the delight of audience members (overheard several times: “She’s so cute!”). In music, she was raw, powerful and unabashed. Her voice was strong and emotional at times, perfectly complemented by her multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, guitar, tambourine, etc.) back-up singer, whom Van Etten introduced as Heather.
Between songs, Van Etten was gleefully awkward, quirky and playful. Her apparent shyness made it almost shocking each time she opened her mouth to sing. At one point, Van Etten was left alone on the stage and began to tune her guitar, when an audience member requested she play “DsharpG.” She immediately complied, putting down her guitar and walking over to the harmonium. She joked about forgetting the lyrics and that she hoped no one would notice. Her modesty was unfounded as her performance of the song was flawless and the audience seemed stunned and awestruck. Afterwards, she breathed a sigh of relief and commented on the heaviness of the song. “I wrote it after I dated a hardcore Christian, “she said with almost comedic delivery.
Much like Tennis, Van Etten was unequivocally sincere – both performances were authentic and genuine, with no bells and whistles. Between songs, Van Etten jokingly chided herself to become a better storyteller so that she could introduce her songs better, but then stopped herself to say, “But that’s what the songs are for. They fill in the blanks.” Exactly.