Laura Marling, St James's Church, Piccadilly, London

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The Independent Culture

When she was little, Laura Marling's dad apparently used to sit her down and force her to listen to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, insisting that this was "real music". The teenage singer-songwriter has learnt those lessons well.

Her highly praised debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was entirely self-penned, its songs displaying a powerful gift for narrative, a deft way with conversational rhyme, a sense of drama and an emotional intelligence that makes you want to listen again. And then there's her voice. It's a natural folk instrument, emotive when it wants to be, and capable of tenderness and hurt, as if it bruised easily.

This gig is part of a short tour of English churches in Manchester, Birmingham and London. The pews of St James's Piccadilly are completely packed, with groups standing in the aisles.

She begins solo, at the foot of the altar, the band equipment set up behind, a stack of speakers beside the pulpit. She opens with "Share", "I have passed your window many times", picking out the melody with precision and carrying the vocal with her natural and emotive voice.

Her spare guitar playing is all about punctuating the rhythm. It works like kindling under the songs, setting them alight. Her band join her on "Ghosts" – a string band comprises snatches of bouzouki, ukulele, violin, accordion and a big bass drum, as well as vocal harmonies and haunted splashes of glockenspiel.

There are several new songs, such as the brilliant "Rebecca", scattered through the set, displaying an even sharper individuality and deepening confidence. She doesn't have the usual star charisma – no stage patter to speak of – but she's compelling.

Her performance brings all sorts of musical equivalents to mind – Beth Gibbons, Suzanne Vega, Dylan, Mitchell – though she has something else that is not equivalent to any of them: a keen sixth sense as to which bits of the folk tradition to lift from the public domain and make her own. It enables her to explore the intimate life with an epic eye, writing confessionals without giving away secrets.

Touring to 12 Sept ( www.lauramarling.com)

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