Laura Marling’s performance at the Forum on Saturday evoked imagery of a retributive Old Testament psalm. Her stage presence, almost spiritual, coupled with her new electric sound, evoked the thrill of ominous dark skies before a gathering storm.
Having seen Laura Marling sing live on two previous occasions, I thought I knew what to expect: a beautifully hushed and sway-inducing performance that could pass for a poetry reading. The intro to her first song proved me entirely wrong. This new Laura was electric and eclectic. Had it not been for Marling’s temporary departure from the music industry, which consisted of a year of self-exploration Stateside, I may have put this makeover down to contrasting venues alone. Whilst the mellow and sun-bathed festival crowd created a tranquil atmosphere at Hop Farm in 2010, the ancient warrior-decorated Forum intensified it.
Platinum blonde pixie-cropped hair, androgynously clad in white and pale skin to match, Marling appeared celestial as she came onto stage after a crowd-rousing performance by support band, Fly Golden Eagle. But any guise of fragility was quickly dispensed with as she showed us her strength, as she does best, through her infallible voice and incredible talent on guitar.
The Queen of nu-folk opened with a rocky performance of ‘False Hope’, which preceded an electric version of ‘Devil’s Spoke’ and then title track of her newest album, ‘Short Movie’ (2015). It appears that her time away predicated the audible transformation in her new sound, somewhat akin to Ben Howard’s electric evolution, and she has returned with much vigour and energy as a result.
After playing the first four songs, uninterrupted, she jested “well that’s all the bangers out the way” before taking it down a notch with beautiful acoustic-electric performances of ‘Salinas’ and ‘Once’. Whilst Marling is known for having an understated stage presence, her interaction with the crowd on Saturday was light and good-humoured. And though we (well, I certainly have) entertained ideas of the perfect British folk couple whilst Laura first dated Charlie Fink from Noah and the Whale and then Mumford and Sons’ lead man Marcus Mumford, she convinced us that alone, she is as strong as ever.
But still her oldest songs received the greatest response from the crowd. The intros to both ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Alas, I Cannot Swim’ were met with joyous cries and inaccurate but well-meant attempts made by the audience to join in. What I love about Laura Marling is that her delivery always differs from studio recorded tracks. She always gives the crowd something more, as if gratefully returning the favour to her fans. And it was a big thank you – an 18 song-strong set list that lasted over an hour. She really owned the stage as she finished with ‘Sophia’ (2011), and the crowd reacted with revered silence until the beat dropped and bopping ensued all around.
The Berkshire born and Hampshire bred Laura Marling could have been mistaken for a Deep Southern country singer rather than a home county poet. (Indeed, she did a very good cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?’) But I’m not complaining. Only, it was a shame she didn’t return for an encore, claiming “we never do them”, perhaps this time excused by the fact her busy summer was not yet over, as she was due to play the following day at the End of the Road festival. What is most clear is that the prodigal Marling is back in the running for best live female singer-songwriter.