A few songs into her set, singer/songwriter Laura Marling paused to her inform the crowd that her stage banter hadn’t gotten any better since the last time she performed here in DC. She wasn’t entirely off the mark with that comment, and while there was a successful and hilarious “show and tell” near the end of the show, banter wasn’t really what people came for Tuesday. They came to hear Marling use her voice to “summon the angels”, as ex-bandmate/ex-boyfriend Charlie Fink of Noah and the Whale fame, once suggested she was capable of. And that’s pretty squarely what she delivered.
Marling spent the entirety of the evening sitting center stage on a stool with her band gathered around her for all but three or four of the songs. What her performance lacked in the usual theatrics though, it more than made up for in power, grace and beauty. Marling’s voice is a powerfully versatile tool that she has continued to develop, often to startling results. On tracks like the show opener “Rambling Man” or the Finch inspired “Blackberry Stone” Marling worked well within the expected range of folk, and did so with a crystalline cool that can only come with confidence in ones own abilities. On the track “The Muse” from her latest album though, that cool turned to a simmering, spittling rage. And by the time she reached the songs final line “I’m nothing but the beast / and I’ll call on you when I need to feast”, it was clear that the seemingly sweet 22 year old from England was anything but slight.
The remainder of her set was punctuated with many such highs, as Marling shifted from saccharine songstress, to sultry aggressor with ease. Leaning heavily on material from her last two albums - 2010’s I Speak Because I Can ,and 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know – she managed to cover the best parts of her career to date, with songs like “I Was just A Card”, “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)” and “Ghosts”, while still finding time to deliver an exquisite solo cover of the Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post” sandwiched between new(ish) songs “Undine” and “Once Is Enough.”
Worth noting is the unexpected hyper -theatricality some of Marling’s music takes on in a live setting. It’s implied in a far more subtle fashion on record, but up close and personal the way Marling delivers some of her lines very often smacks of subconscious Broadway ambition. The song “Hope In The Air” in particular took on the auspices of some elaborately staged musical number, even though the “actors” on the stage barely moved except to affect the next chord change. Taking on a weirdly Scottish accent Marling sang “I can’t give up that quick / My life is a candle and a wick / You can put it out, but you can’t break it down / In the end we are waiting to be lit.” as if she were performing an outtake from Sweeny Todd or Phantom of the Opera, adding just a little extra “oomph” to her already justifiably dramatic material.
Eschewing a traditional encore, Marling and her band chose instead to remain on stage, ending the evening with perfectly sublime performances of ”Sophia” and “I Speak Because I Can” to a perfectly awestruck and silent room. It’s a testament to Marling’s talent that given the relative malaise that is inherent to her material, she could keep an audience completely enraptured for the better part of 70 minutes. Strip everything away, and there’s still that richly raw and sultry voice that manages to shine a light on even the bleakest of subject matters. Describing her music as “nu-folk”, as many have seen fit to do, is not only selling it short, it’s missing the point. An artist’s ultimate goal is to get what’s on the inside out. In Marling’s case, the HOW that comes out is just as important as the WHAT, and after spending just one night with her you’ll know that both add up to something truly and honestly remarkable.