Words by Damien Russell Pics by Rachel Mason
Hot on the heels of her album release, Laura Marling embarked on a 32 date international tour – playing to a sold out show at the O2 Institute on 14th of March.
It’s a gig I’ve been looking forward to. I like the album, Semper Femina (although it’s not perfect), but my friend is a long-term fan of Laura Marling and is mad keen for the show. I’ve not seen Marling before but hear good things, so I ignore the fact it’s been a long and stressful day and commute up from Basingstoke to be there just as the support band are starting.
Said support are a four piece country/soft rock group who are melodic but slow. The singer’s quite quiet and in-between songs I have no idea what he’s saying, so I must confess I never got their name. They unfortunately fail to get my enthusiasm, and I see pockets of people chatting who seem equally disengaged.
The band are clearly competent but just a bit too slow and a bit too laid back. Their last song, before clearing the stage for Laura Marling, is an up-tempo number and exactly what they should have been doing the whole time. It’s a shame as you can see they recognise that song is the best received, but just don’t seem to have made the connection.
I notice there doesn’t seem to be much activity preparing the stage. It seems odd but I don’t have to wait long to find out why; out with Laura Marling come the bass player and drummer from the support group, as part of her backing band. A nice touch and something that must make the tour more efficient. Additionally Marling has two backing singers and an electric guitarist.
The first song of Laura Marling’s set is ‘Soothing’, the opening track from the album. In fact the first five tracks tonight are the first five off Semper Femina, played in tracklist order. ‘Soothing’ is my favourite song off Semper Femina and while I feel it’s only right that it has such a prominent place in tonight’s set, I am disappointed that the double bass I’m certain must have been used on the record to get that fantastic deep sound is nowhere to be seen. The double bass does feature on later songs in Laura Marling’s set tonight, but not on the one I feel it really needed (to read Damien Russell’s Birmingham Review of Semper Femina, click here).
The five track Semper Femina section is followed by a tri-song treat of Laura Marling on her own, performing tracks #7 and #8 (‘Next Time’ and ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’) again from her latest LP, alongside ‘What He Wrote’ from the 2010 album I Speak Because I Can. The final new track, ‘Nouel’, finishes off this section of the set with the full band again. I like the split and the way all of the new tracks are performed together, it has a touch of the dramatic about it and is something I rarely see done.
The tracks themselves are lovingly reproduced from the album to the stage, and although I pick up a couple of small arrangement changes for the live setting each track is easily connected to the studio version. But when Laura Marling takes the stage alone, it’s a real highlight of the set; her stripped down version of ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ is, in my opinion, much better than the album version. Her solo performance of ‘What He Wrote’ is the best song in the set by far.
Following the new material, Laura Marling and her band run through some of her best known other songs – including ‘Daisy’, ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘Darkness Descends’ – before ending the set with ‘Rambling Man’ and her trademark announcement that she doesn’t do encores.
Musically, the group were solid and the songs are obviously good, but there’s something missing in the band’s performance tonight that makes me wonder if they’re as well rehearsed as they could be. There have been a few minor slip-ups tonight; nothing major, but coming from either inexperience in the musicians (hard to believe) or a lack of preparation time.
Laura Marling herself is excellent musically but spends the gig gazing into the middle distance, leaving me feeling a she’s not entirely with us tonight. We get a couple of “how are you?” but little in the way of other banter or engagement.
On the whole, it was a good night but it was far from a great one; even the reactions from the other crowd members seemed muted. I think next time I see Laura Marling (and yes, I think there will be a next time) I’ll make sure it’s at one of her solo shows. Otherwise I’ll stick to the albums.
For more on Laura Marling, visit www.lauramarling.com
For more from O2 Institute, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.academymusicgroup.com/o2institutebirmingham
For more from SJM Concerts/Gigs and Tours, visit www.gigsandtours.com