I spoke rapturously of Laura Marling’s musicianship after her A Creature I Don't Know tour in March 2012. The surprise in Manchester last night was the extent to which she’s developed with the release of Once I Was An Eagle this year. Even after the depth of the opening sequence on this album, I wasn't prepared for such an intense live experience. The venue was plush, but the set completely stripped down, the stage bare except for two acoustic guitars and a microphone. The only lighting was a static white spotlight, and there were no backing musicians. This was an intimate occasion, the size of the space shrinking so that your field of attention became utterly focused. I've been to classical concerts where the audience have been noisy in comparison to this: there was utter hush and concentration, but no lack of passion. Photography was discouraged adding to the reverent atmosphere.
As I waited for the show to start, I read the powerful article Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES had just written for The Guardian. This is a scathing and disturbing account of sexism and misogyny on-line. Lauren movingly explained that 'despite the positive messages in the majority, the aggressive, intrusive nature of the other kind becomes overwhelming'. Laura Marling shies away from discussing her feelings publicly, but it's not difficult to discern an inner strength when you read the lyrics of the opening song last night, I Was An Eagle:
'When we were in love, if we were, I was an eagle and you were a dove… I will not be a victim of romance or circumstance…You were a dove and I rose above you and preyed.'
In this analogy gender roles are reversed; powerful imagery expressed through poetry.
As she came on stage, the endearingly shy trademark introduction: ‘Hello, I’m Laura' was just about audible from the stage. As the 75 minute set progressed, her rapport became more informal and relaxed. Responding to a review of her Edinburgh date which remarked on the time she spent tuning, Laura decided to fill the gaps by reading lines of poetry. Later on, she told an amusing anecdote about Walt Whitman's arrogance she found in an introduction to his Leaves of Grass. The daughter of a baronet, Laura’s life appears to that of a genteel introvert. In a recent interview about her move to LA, she said she always has a crossword on the go. Songs such as The Muse and Sophia are full of literary imagery, but the delivery of this music is far removed from reserved.
I've felt previously that Laura's emotions are contained just below the surface, but this time they exploded outwards. There was an exhilarating sense of risk in her singing, and twice a song actually did break down mid flow. Expression was prioritised over technical perfection. Far from being primarily interested in beauty of tone, she focused on the lyrics, at times adopting a declamatory style midway between speech and singing. We were put through an emotional roller coaster, harrowing at times, bringing me to tears in I Speak Because I Can. Her vocal range, particularly in the lower register, was remarkable, with an agility and rawness reminiscent of Fiona Apple in songs such as Breathe. A native American legend inspired Master Hunter; a song whose power is testimony to her versatility.
Laura mentioned that she collected records from 1969 before performing the cover of Townes Van Zandt's For the Sake of the Song towards the end of the set. Her fans already know that she doesn't do encores: instead she closed with Where Can I Go. This recent material is darker and less immediate: she's moved some distance from the boisterous nu folk of former lovers Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink. Despite the English reserve, Laura is taking her devoted fans on an unpredicable musical journey of her choosing. As her petite, pale figure stood alone on the stage in a simple white dress, I became totally lost in the music, oblivious to the passage of time. Far from being a distant presence, she inhabited my soul: when music making reaches this plane, it can become a religious experience.