Steve Beauchampe witnesses one of Britain’s finest young songwriters.
Black drape curtain, spotlight, microphone on stand, two acoustic guitars (on stands); it must have taken all of sixty seconds to dress the stage for Laura Marling’s Symphony Hall performance. At 23-years old, Marling recently released her fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle, an audacious piece of work, overwhelmingly critically acclaimed (as have been her first three long players) and vying for the 2013 Mercury Music Prize. At a time when guitar strumming singer songwriters are plentiful, and many are talented, Once I Was An Eagle confirmed that Laura Marling has no peers, as far ahead in her chosen discipline as Usain Bolt is in his.
Maintaining understatement, she quietly walks on stage, picks up her guitar before announcing softly: “Hello, I’m Laura.” What follows is the opening quintet of songs from Eagle, over fifteen minutes of music, delivered, as it is on the album, seamlessly and without interruption. Marling’s attire (cream cardigan, grey trousers, sensible shoes) is as deliberately, wilfully, low key and unfussy as the stage set, ensuring that nothing diverts attention from her music.
Except that there’s a small problem; whilst tuning her main guitar (and chatting away to the audience) ready for the next song, a string breaks. There’s no technician on hand and apparently no roadie to re-string, meaning that for the remainder of the show Laura Marling will have to perform using just her older guitar. She can more than get by but you can’t help worrying about lightning striking twice and her having to complete the show acapella.
Two songs from debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim follow, Ghosts and the title track (“There’s a house across the river, but alas I cannot swim, with a garden of such beauty that the flowers all seem to grin.”). Laura Marling’s voice is strong and distinctive, not rustic, rootsy folk (folk music being the closest description of her idiom), but characterful enough. Marling returns to Eagle for Love Be Brave, followed by the glorious title track from her second album, I Speak Because I Can. It takes a rare confidence and ability to write a song with the opening line: “My husband left me last night” when you’re still only a teenager
Blackberry Stone, Rambling Man, What He Wrote and Alpha Shadow come next. Fine, beautiful songs, yet I’m starting to feel that for all Laura Marling’s quality, what we are witnessing is essentially either a faithful or pared down interpretation of her records, when live performance should involve something more, or at least something different. Naturally it’s great to hear the woman who wrote such masterful material in front of us, chatty and enjoying herself. But on record some of these songs feature additional instrumentation (cello is particularly potent on Eagle, bass too, whilst violins and percussion are splendidly employed on her pervious albums) and stripped of this, and with nothing brought in as a replacement, the music perhaps lacks variety. That Marling remains static during each number doesn’t help, though such a motionless approach is largely necessitated by the songs featuring few instrumental breaks, Laura Marling being a wordsmith first and a tunesmith second.
An unnamed new song, Devil’s Resting Place and Sophia (from A Creature I Don’t Know…you’ll perhaps notice a certain pattern to her album titles) follow, before a return to Once I Was An Eagle for Where Can I Go? and Little Bird. Quality songs with inspired, mature lyrics and sublime shifts of tempo, all so exquisitely arranged. But whilst Laura Marling’s fan base do not treat her with messianic fervour, nor sing along to her songs, preferring instead to listen, I am wondering if the communal experience of live performance on offer tonight is sufficiently different to justify the investment of time and money that attending a concert entails. OK, this once then, for all the positive reasons stated above, but not every time, I’d like it to be a little more fulfilling.