With its 5000 capacity, Hammersmith Apollo is a large venue for any band to command, let alone a slight folk songstress with an acoustic guitar. Laura Marling more than rose to the challenge.
The 22-year-old's last tour, in Autumn, was of UK cathedrals, whose decadent surroundings commanded an automatic reverence. Tonight, a show she sold out in two days, on her largest tour to date, dressed in demure fitted cream sweater and black trousers, she captivated the crowd from the beginning to the end of her 90-minute set. Where once she would have appeared uncertain on a stage, providing awkward crowd banter, tonight she projected with confidence, as if she finally knows, and has accepted, her place as a vital talent.
Her most recent third album A Creature I Don't Know dominated the first third of the set. Its expansion into folk-rock was brought beautifully to life by a band of double bass, cello, flute, drums and banjo with piano flourishes from folk musician Pete Roe. With backing harmonies, they added welcome colour and energy throughout the set. A tender Ghosts, written when Marling was just 17, swelled with cantering drums, banjo and piano.
Mid-set she performed a handful of songs solo, but she'd already proven her ability to hold a vast room with the opening to the gorgeous Blackberry Stone, accompanied only by mournful cello. Goodbye England shone, its poetic lyrics and lilting delivery most recalling Joni Mitchell's Blue, while the dark poeticism and half-muttered vocals of Night After Night recalled her folk forebear Leonard Cohen. An as-yet-untitled new song understandably had a quiet reception.
Much more appreciated were the trio of songs she saved for the end. She drew in the listener to Sophia with low pitch world weary vocals, bursting into uptempo country-rock, giving her band the full richness of their sound and showing off the full spectrum of her soaring voice. It could only be trumped by follow-ups Rambling man and the ever bewitching I Speak Because I Can.
She also illuminated the crowd with witty stories. It's a special venue for her, she said, because of the acts she's seen here over the years: Steely Dan ("I think I was the youngest and most female person there") and Steve Martin ("Doing bluegrass and stand-up. He was so funny - I wasn't nervous for tonight until I remembered how much I laughed at that gig"). But you'd never have known she was nervous.