Laura Marling :: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London :: April 30th 2015

Richard Etteridge credit
Photo by Richard Etteridge

Not for the first time, I had a moment of realisation last night. There’s an endless list of reasons why I love gigs so much but I think a big one is the utter immersion of it. You’re in a dark room, with strangers. You don’t have anything to worry about, you leave (you should leave) your work/life stresses at the door. You’re shut in. Sound and visual stimulation sweep the space. Anything could be happening outside that room and you wouldn’t know about it. An asteroid could have knocked out half of Europe, austerity riots could be in full swing, a lake of fire could be where the Thames was, or a politician could have nearly done the full Madonna and stumbled off a stage on Question Time. Ok, that last one actually happened. But nothing matters outside the room. It’s like a football match, it’s the most pure here and now of a moment. You’re transported somewhere. Of course, not all gigs are the same. The average, good and sometimes even great ones can cause my attention span to wander (that’s what nearly two decades of being online will do to you)… what Tube route should I take home (for the South Bank I’ve taken to walking across the bridge by Embankment station, it’s lovely)? I wonder if I will get any work in tomorrow? I wonder if that person will reply to that email? Should I get a snack on the way home (I shouldn’t)? I hope I get Dylan tickets in the morning (I did). Some of it boring detritus, some is important thoughts that you wish you weren’t thinking. But not last night, not with Laura Marling. There was no distraction that floated in. I was immersed, rapt, dazzled, by this gifted young woman.

In the current age, where media training faces off in a heavyweight battle with the over-share, we both dread and desire the knowability of the famous. It’s not a new thing, prying into the private lives of people whose creativity has a crucial presence in our lives. I’m sure that admirers and benefactors hounded Mozart about his marriage, while Lennon’s wife and child were hidden from the public in the white-hot glare of early Beatlemania, and this was all before the advent of the internet. Yet, women in music seem to occupy a more studied, criticised, judged place. Perhaps the ground zero for this is Joni Mitchell, an article about whom is never written without mentioning the men she’s slept with and been disappointed by. In her rare but always compelling interviews (try to ignore the interviewer, a now-disgraced Canadian journalist, Google him at your peril) she seems to constantly exist in a state of bitterness at being treated a certain way by the music industry (meaning: men). This is how she is defined – by the male gaze. It’s how she’s defined by others and, despite being brilliant and insightful and worth more, it’s how she defines herself. She always has a bad word to say about her treatment, not without cause. And Marling has been subject to the same clichés, as each article and interview mentions how many folk band boyfriends she’s had (the singers from Noah and the Whale, and Mumford and Sons, articles are keen to tell us) and how she moved to America because she fell in love with a boy, and then they broke up and she’s back here now and she might be single, might not be… and so on. Is this newsworthy? Only if you care about that kind of thing. Does it matter even a tiny fucking amount when you listen to her songs? No.

On stage, it is only about music. Nothing else matters. She barely speaks to the audience. Dylan, incidentally, almost never says a single word between songs. Saving his voice perhaps? (eyebrow raise). She says hello about 20 minutes in, after the first suite of songs, played without breaks, has ended, as the applause and energy that has built up over those minutes explodes. The only other time she speaks is 10 minutes before the end, where she gives a short speech about how she did an encore for the first time the other night, didn’t like it, isn’t going to do it again, and if you want one, well, it’s about to happen right now. She said she had been giving variations on that ‘encore’ speech for the last 8 years. It was charming and the audience lapped it up. Perhaps they had been crying out to be verbally connected to? I hadn’t. I don’t need to know her. I was inside the songs, mesmerised by her voice and the film playing on a big screen behind her. I thought at first it was a photograph of a desert vista: a late afternoon, a low mountain range in the background, with two trails of sandy footprints leading towards (or away from, if you want to think of it that way) the camera. But when I would lose track of it just for a minute or two a small thing would change, like a time-lapse tableau; a half-moon appeared in the distance, the lighting changed, at first imperceptibly, and then the sky started to get darker, glacially slowly. Near the end of the show, time started to move faster – car headlights appeared in the distance, snaking from left to right across a northern California highway. The moon disappeared, and then real darkness fell. The camera started to tilt up inch by inch as the stars came out. By the end the mountains and sand were out of sight and a million pinprick holes glittered, like a shot from the Hubble Telescope. By the time the stars had arrived, and as she sang the aching, poignant Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), given added meaning now she has returned to live here, I felt myself well up and wondered if I could experience a more pure moment than this.

She had stood, dressed in white and barefoot, in front of subtle spotlighting, which formed a halo above her platinum pixie-cut. A three-piece band (Pete Randell, guitar; Nick Pini, bass/double bass; Matt Ingram, drums/percussion) played neatly, tightly, with precision, yet were able to let loose when required, behind her. I had seen her live once before, at a pretty strange Secret Cinema gimmick gig. Walking around a converted school with hipsters in flapper/tux fancy dress, I had almost forgotten I was there for a concert. She played in a gym/sports hall at the end of the night and it was extremely good but by then, after 3 hours of walking around, I was pretty disengaged. This time I was fully present. She is more electric (in every sense) these days, and it seems to me that great efforts at moving her guitar playing forward have taken place. She’s not at a St Vincent level of virtuosity, but she certainly has improved her already very good guitar playing by several levels. Very little acoustic material was played – many of the songs were just her on guitar, but it was a beautiful Dobro resonator, half-electric/half-acoustic sound that rang out, led by a powerful, but delicate when it has to be, voice that will need to be protected (roll-ups are a favourite; she’d do well to note that Joni can no longer sing because of smoking). Age shouldn’t be a factor but it is rare, very rare, that someone who a couple of months ago turned 25 should already have five albums so carefully crafted and mature under her belt. The level of songwriting technique at that age I’ve only seen in Joni before (and Dylan, as my dad insisted I say). Whether she is capable of the level of invention and innovation that Joni reached in the rest of her 20s and 30s who can say? Comparisons may be unfair but they also feel right: this majestic track from Short Movie, Gurdjieff’s Daughter (what a warm and playful video, incidentally), which wasn’t played unfortunately, has that fragrant scent of Hejira’s Coyote about it (don’t tell the estate of Marvin Gaye, they’ll be on the phone to a lawyer before the song’s over).

She exudes a kind of icy diffidence; she knows how good she is and isn’t wasting time and words by pretending to be your pal, your mate. She’s not in it for Spinal Tap-style ‘Hello Cleveland!’ sucking up. Without appearing arrogant, or the wrong side of aloof, she projects a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She also manages, remarkably, to not fall prey to the class-based bias that seems to affect artists whom the media designates as annoying or unworthy of success since they are felt to have gained an unfair advantage because of their white middle/upper-class-ness. Anyone else – she is actual aristocracy, the 5th generation of baronets and knights from affluent Hampshire – would get it in the neck for being a toff. I guess you have to be this good to bat away that kind of classist nonsense seemingly without any effort.

Most of her new album, Short Movie, was played. The title derives from a hippy, who turned out to be a shaman (of course, if you will live in California…), she befriended in a bar; he would say, at the end of sentences, ‘It’s a short fucking movie, man’. You get the sense she doesn’t have an interest in wasting a single minute. In a sense, the songs run into each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out. There’s just a beautiful flow to the evening, tracked by the level of control she exerts over every breath, every word. She runs through a litany of perfectly formed songs, relying heavily on Short Movie and its predecessor, Once I Was An Eagle. Time is also found for a gorgeous, delicate rendition of one of the great blues standards, Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game. Having a go at, and nailing, a song covered by everyone from Nick Drake to Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch to Sandy Denny, puts you in rarefied air, where she sits with ease. Looking at the setlist, the song titles are quite bland, without much personality. Titles like How Can I, What He Wrote, You Know, Breathe, False Hope, Walk Alone, I Feel Your Love. Nothing titles. It’s hardly The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores (oh Moz, master of the pithy song title, so much to answer for). I listen to her albums while I work and that means I know all the songs but aside from the odd one, like Master Hunter, I tend not to know what they’re called anyway. It doesn’t matter. She’s building a collection. It always feels like a privilege to sit in a room and, speaking as a non-creative person, have an artist express themselves at you, to you. I could never tire of it if I went to 1000 gigs.

At the best shows, I sometimes am overcome by a heavenly feeling. Not that I believe in it, a literal version of heaven. Of course I don’t. But if it existed, that’s what I would want it to be. The music I love, surrounded by happy strangers and friends, playing for all eternity. I’ve felt that way hundreds of times. That if I was stuck in one day, I’d want it to be this one day. This one great night. At its best, that’s exactly how music should make you feel. Add up all those great nights, and you can make a great life.

Walk Alone
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
You Know
I Feel Your Love
How Can I
What He Wrote
Rambling Man
Love Be Brave
False Hope
Master Hunter
The Muse
Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)
Blues Run the Game
Worship Me
Short Movie