– ALBERT HALL, MANCHESTER –
Before the Albert Hall was one of Manchester’s best loved music venues it used to be a church, and for Laura Marling’s fourth stop on her Semper Femina tour this evening, you can feel that more than ever. Beneath the imposing stained glass church windows, which are allowing a flickering of the last light of the day through, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ plays. Ferns fill the floor of the stage and there’s ivy winding up all the mic stands and inanimate instruments. The old organ pipes are just about visible behind five huge white drapes at the back of the stage. Marling is no stranger to this sort of vibe, however, and it’s one she probably aims for: in 2012 she had one of her live sets recorded in York Minster.
Tonight, there are pairings of dads and daughters, mums and sons, husbands and wives and arty student types all under one roof – it’s truly a mixed crowd. There is one common denominator though – a smile painted across each and everyone’s face. I’m a (very) casual folk listener, but Laura Marling has been on my radar for years now. Semper Femina is already her sixth album and her music has encapsulated listeners from all ends of the spectrum of the music world.
First on is support Ethan Jones playing his style of country and folk on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a viola, electric guitar and drums. After his new single, a cover of Benmont Tench’s ‘Blonde Girl, Blue Dress’ he explains, “we’re just out here to have fun and nothing else”. Then, to the growing crowd’s joy and a slight false start, he breaks into a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. He’s not wrong – it is a lot of fun, and creates a very relaxed and contented atmosphere for Marling.
Laura Marling comes on to ‘Soothing’ and continues to play the first five tracks on the new album Semper Femina, which has received universal critical acclaim. Continuing the religious theme of the night, she sounds and looks angelic. A spotlight shines on her alone and her long white dress shimmers in the darkness of the venue.
For the next songs in the set Marling is left on stage alone to perform solo. She tells the crowd “It’s just me and you Manchester”, and performs ‘Night After Night’, ‘Nouel’, ‘I Speak’ and ‘Daisy’ before her band come back on to join her again. Considering she is only 27 years old, Marling has a seasoned aura about her on stage and especially so when she is playing these quieter, more delicate songs. A personal favourite is ‘Night After Night’ from 2011’s Mercury Music Prize nominated A Creature I Don’t Know, but the best reaction is for ‘Nouel’, which is a credit to her as it’s on the new album out just days ago. Alone she is Joni Mitchell-esque, truly mesmerising.
For all its beauty, occasionally the acoustics in the Albert Hall can be a little off. When the full band is playing together Marling’s voice can, at times, be drowned out in vast ceiling. ‘Darkness Descends’ is the penultimate song of the set and sadly it is one of those occasions. Additionally, it’s the first time the music tonight has been bordering on poppy and epic, a la Mumford and Sons folk – Marling is much better in her more restrained, introspective moments.
She explains there’ll be no encore tonight as she finishes with ‘Rambling Man’. For the first time in the set the entire crowd let their guards down, throw away any inhibitions about interrupting the music, and sing along in mass – loudly at that. This evening truly has been heavenly.