Whether by accident or design, there’s a sense of great aloneness about the Laura Marling live experience. She stands in the centre of the Usher Hall’s large stage, picked out by a spotlight and with only an interchangeable pair of acoustic guitars for comfort. Not even the usual buzzing fly presence of a guitar technician offers some respite. For reasons she “won’t go into”, she no longer travels with one, which means her shows are “pretty much fifteen percent tuning now. It’s all included in the ticket price.” Yet a stylistic aloneness doesn’t mean loneliness, and we’re very conscious of being one of the nearly three thousand-strong capacity crowd here with her, watching and listening intently.
There’s a remarkable clarity to the experience, both of how little anything external is permitted to detract from our focus upon her and just how richly her voice and her music transmits itself to the audience. In contrast to the well-spoken 23-year-old daughter of a Hampshire baronet before us, demure in leggings and a blouse, commending our applause as being “very polite” and joking about tuning her G-string, her in-song persona is something otherworldly and richly defined. With every sigh and piercing cry, she switches from tangible sadness to palpable sexuality to regret and a simmering anger beneath the surface.
This year’s Once I Was An Eagle, her fourth album in five years (and the third to be nominated for the Mercury Prize), might be viewed as a high water mark only in so far as each of Marling’s albums has maintained and built upon the standard set previously. Her eighty-minute set is picked from each, and from an in-the-works fifth, and its finest moments don’t betray any difference in her level of ability or maturity when she wrote and recorded them.
In fact, for no apparent reason the highest number of most enjoyable non-marquee tracks come from 2010’s second album I Speak Because I Can, including the title track, the richly-defined narratives of "Alpha Shallows" and "What He Wrote", and the sublime, wintery placemaking of "Goodbye England" (Covered in Snow), dedicated with a refreshing lack of apology given the location to “my England” by the now Los Angeles resident. Yet through the prickly bravado of Master Hunter, the folksy introspection of "Rambling Man", a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s "For the Sake of the Song" and the tentative country uplift of the encore-free finale "Where Can I Go?", the absorbing accuracy of her voice and vision remains entirely uncompromised.