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Laura Marling @ Gloucester Cathedral Gig Review (Tuesday 18th October 2011)

Few would disagree that 2011 has been an exceptional year for Laura Marling.  Only three weeks in and a Brit Award nomination for Best Female lands on her doormat, followed in its wake by a similar acknowledgement posted from the offices of NME (two prizes she would later go on to win).  Now at album number three, not only has high praise run in parallel with each of the singer’s record releases, but her previous albums have doubled as prize magnets. Her debut, 2007’s Alas I Cannot Swim and last year’s I Speak Because I Can both garnered nominations from the Mercury Prize panel, arguably the UK’s highest music accolade.  And if PJ Harvey’s Mercury success is anything to go by, more nominations will invariably follow.      

Not one to rest on her laurels, last month heralded the release of A Creature I Don’t Know, the singer-songwriter’s third studio album.  Like its predecessors, it was lavished with wide critical acclaim, cementing her alongside (her former backing band) Mumford & Sons and (her former band) Noah & the Whale as the UK’s hottest starlet in the neo-folk pond.

If you caught the dates for Marling’s latest tour, you’ll know that ambition is not a quality this songstress lacks.  When 2008 saw her touring a selection of Britain’s churches, Marling dared to go bigger.  But what could be bigger, grander, bolder than a church? While it’s a question many primary school students could answer in frantic hand-waving impatience, most musicians on the subject of venues would wave off the mere thought of the answer as a silly pipe dream.

Indeed, the viability of the idea seems as imposing as a cathedral itself. First off, how would you go about it?  On the face of it, the two institutions would appear to lack the necessary links for collaboration, but July’s announcement direct from Marling HQ proved otherwise.  It was a tantalising prospect for her fans, demonstrated by the rate at which the sold out stamps were slapped across each of the dates.  Nevertheless, to doubt is human: having a history of church singing by no means makes you a church singer, even for someone as peerless as Marling.  And something as grandiose as an eleven-date Cathedral city circuit was suggestive of a diva-like ostentation.  However, as anyone who has followed Marling’s short but illustrious career will testify, her appeal is not only her complete lack of pretention, but her inherent modesty and levelheadedness.  Whether these qualities would appeal to the sprawling dimensions of Britain’s most eminent Cathedrals remained to be seen. 

Marling visited Gloucester Cathedral as part of the fourth leg of her eleven-date “When the Bell Tolls” tour.  In a grey turtleneck jumper, black skinny jeans and converse trainers, Marling sauntered onto the stage to rapturous applause.  Her band followed – seven strumming, drumming, blowing, bowing doses of effortless cool – and took up their positions behind her.  Centre-stage, Marling stood as a reluctant, awkward idol, looking even younger than her twenty-one years.  “Hello,” she said, mumbling in a low, timorous voice, “my name’s Laura.”  Formalities now over with and comfort level restored, the band took Marling’s cue as she began what would be her nineteen-song set. 

Like a history of any cathedral, it is impossible to write about the Marling without citing her age, and it would be fitting in such stately surroundings to draw some sort of comparison. If the singer has barely come of age in cathedral terms, then it was only a blink of an eye ago that the singer’s performances were characterised by a vacant gaze rooted firmly on the floor.  But ambitions were evident from day one, and four years on and three well-received albums later, Marling began the set with her sight upturned, setting a live music precedent as her eyes wandered and her voice soared around the county’s highest and most majestic vaulted ceiling.   

Marling kicked the gig off with I Was Just a Card, her folksy roots being untethered with its opening line: “I was just a card, caught up in the stars, looking down to Mars.”  With the exception of Ghosts, a song taken from her debut album, Marling and her band – strings, brass, wind and percussion all in representation - took us on a tour of A Creature’s first half.  It was soon clear that the former Norman abbey served to enhance the evening’s performance; Marling’s voice was amplified as much by the old as the new: the vast stone pillars flanking the stalls worked with the fan-vaulted cloisters beyond to aid the audio equipment like an older brother, adding a timeless, warm, kindly resonance for the evening’s spellbound occupants.
 
Unable to dull her personality with an air of infallibility, she admits she’s bad at crowd banter, and when she makes a mistake at the end of The Muse, the second song in her set, she says so, warning her audience that there might be more to come.  It is perhaps because of this candid fallibility, supported by her latest album’s meditation on love, loss and redemption that may have drawn her to these technically foreboding, but – but perhaps more importantly - spiritually forgiving cathedrals in the first place.

The highlight of the night came when the band stepped down to allow Marling to seek out the intimacies of playing a cathedral solo.  Before she started, she admitted to liking the weather when it was like this.  “Cold,” she said, before adding, “but sunny.”  Indeed, the day’s weather had hinted at the first snaps of winter, so it was appropriate that Marling should dedicate the song to the turning season.  In spite of its title, Goodbye England (Covered in Snow), proved to be a heart-warming ballad, stirring and rippling through every inch of the nave.  The cathedral’s thousand-year history added a certain reflective, sobering context as her words rang out: “I will come back here, bring me back when I’m old, I want to lay forever here in the cold.”  The building’s bouncing, stony echo may mislead on occasion, but there was no doubt that the song was rewarded with a round of applause only to be proceeding by another wave of similar intensity. 

Marling’s band returned to the stage for the final third of the performance in which she encouraged them to impart some facts about Gloucester Cathedral.  Some were keener than others.  One told us that the cathedral has a stained glass window that depicts the very first recorded depiction of golf in the world, while another told us that King Edward II was buried in the grounds of Gloucester Cathedral, adding that he was an inefficient king (further research has revealed that he headed an unsuccessful invasion of Scotland in 1314.  The French invasion of England came nine years later, orchestrated in part by Edward’s own wife.  He was then imprisoned at Berkeley Castle and subsequently murdered there).  Another touched on the subject of the building’s restoration.  Some of the stained glass windows were so fragile that to clean them, the restorers had to twist cotton wool buds gently above each one without applying the least bit of pressure).  Others were not so eager to divulge any information.  “I don’t know any facts,” the organ player said, “at least not any real ones.”

Appropriately, Marling’s final song of the night was All My Rage, the concluding track from her new album.  With the band at its crescendo, she repeats the line, “I leave my rage to the sea and the sun.”  It was a fast-paced, folk-infused song that Marling has said is about taking it all on the chin.  She finishes the song with a telling downwards strum of her guitar, remaining stoic in the face of a well-received performance.  She didn’t leave her audience in any doubt over the night’s conclusion, stating a few songs previously that, “If you want an encore, this is the last song.  If don’t want an encore, this is the second-to-last.  We’re not cool enough for encores.”  A Cathedral-sized audience would beg to differ.   

Tom Wiggins

Set List

I Was Just a Card
The Muse
Ghosts
Don’t Ask Me Why
Salinas
The Beast
………………
Goodbye England – solo
Failure – solo
Night Terror – solo
Dora – solo
Flicker and Fail – solo
Night After Night - solo
………………
My Friends
Rest in the Bed
Sophia
My Manic
Rambling Man
I Speak Because I Can
All My Rage

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