HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London, March 7th
Perched on the end of a leather sofa, Laura Marling’s demure demeanour doesn’t really fit in with the vast surroundings of Hammersmith Apollo’s green room. These walls, decked in posters and covered with scrawled signatures, are more used to housing comedy turns or shiny pop spectacles: Katy Perry beams cartoon-like atop a cloud from one end while Savage Garden smoulder from the other. Yet Marling is clearly more than at ease here.
“I remember when I started, I didn’t really have enough songs – so if the crowd were lairy I felt bad, but now I can change the set around a bit, which is fun,” she tells NME backstage before the show. “With the cathedral tour we did quite a sedate set, but now we rock out as far as we can.”
Of course, her definition of ‘rocking out’ is more a case of ‘add an extra banjo’ than a Spinal Tap-esque ‘turn the amps to 11’ situation. From introducing her band by way of a string of personal facts to the declarations of ardour disguised as heckles that pepper the gaps between songs, tonight is the kind of dignified, middle-class affair that should come sponsored by hummus and a full-bodied shiraz. It’s pleasant, which should, by rights, equal boring but never, ever does. ‘Boring’ is too often synonymous with ‘plain old average’ – and Marling’s show is certainly not average.
Flanked by a seven-piece band and spine-like towers of golden lights, Marling’s grandly intimate set-up couldn’t be more suited to the opulent interior of the Apollo. ‘I Was Just A Card’ opens proceedings in delicately sweeping fashion, underpinning the customary acoustic thrum with an almost orchestral build, while ‘Salinas’ ups the Joni Mitchell factor and ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ elicits full-on cheers of approval upon its opening notes. Then, just before her solo, acoustic spot she calmly intones, “It’s just you and me now.” That’ll be just 5,000 of us and her then, no biggie.
Tackling the only new song of the night, ‘Pray For Me’ – a work in progress “not a million miles away” from her previous output, she told us earlier, but enchanting all the same – dedicating ‘Flicker And Fail’ to her dad, from whom she apparently pilfered the track’s premise, and offering a sweet, stripped back ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’, she’s as enigmatic when left to her own devices as with the bolster of an entire crew behind her. And with their return their set… well, if not rocks out per se, then gets a bit louder.
‘Alpha Shallows’ provides darker thrills; ‘Sophia’ spirals around Marling’s note-perfect vocal; and ‘Rambling Man’ ends in full on hoe-down territory. It’s left to the swells of ‘I Speak Because I Can’ to close the evening – offered as an encore without the tiresome protocol of actually leaving the stage (which Marling states that she hates).
In an evening that’s traditional yet continually exciting, and executed entirely on the singer’s own terms, it’s the perfect fit.