Friday night isn’t normally seen as a time for religious communion, but Laura Marling proved that wrong this weekend as she and her band delivered an inspiring tour de force in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. The combination of Marling's haunting alto and searing lyrical vulnerability within the cathedral's awe-inspiring Gothic architecture created a space that was both communal and intensely personal.
Already labeled as one of Britain's most promising young folk singer-songwriters at the tender age of 17 for her first album Alas, I Cannot Swim, Laura Marling and her work have only grown more mature and poignant with age. Now 22 and touring her third album A Creature I Don't Know (2011), Marling's catalog explores the intricacies of love and loss with poetic deftness and musicality. Her set at Grace Cathedral was compiled primarily from her sophomore album I Speak Because I Can (2011) and A Creature, which, if not a comprehensive representation of her catalog, definitely showcased her strongest work.
The set launched with the song “Rambling Man” from I Speak, with Marling alone strumming her guitar, but gradually incorporating the entire band, bringing in banjo, piano, cello and back-up vocals to create an Appalachian cacophony that was infectious. She followed this with the heart-breaking folk ballad “Blackberry Stone,” transforming the cathedral's expansive nave into a space as intimate as a confessional. Marling crooned with her face lifted toward the cathedral rafters, “But I whisper that I love this man now and for forever to your soul as it floats out off the window,” giving the audience an intensity from being let into this world in a space that amplified every sound.
Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen
Admitting early in the set that stage banter was not her strong suite, Marling spoke little throughout her performance, relying more on the conversational nature of her songs to build the bond between performer and audience. The acoustics of the cathedral greatly enhanced this aspect of her performance, rounding her voice and allowing each layer of instrumentation to reverberate and linger throughout the nave. This came through gorgeously during Marling's solo set, in which she previewed two new songs. One, currently entitled “Once,” has a lullaby-like quality that comes across as disarmingly simple while also showcasing the maturation of her voice. There is a richness of tone that she imparts to lyrics such as “Once, once is enough to break you. Once, once is enough to make you think twice about laying your love out on the line” reminiscent of folk greats such as Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.
The final stand-out of this performance came near its end with A Creature's “Sophia.” A song full of swelling strings and foot-stomping bass and banjo lines, Marling's voice and her cellist's accompanying harmonies rose sweetly above the pulsating instrumentation, filling the hall with a celebratory sound. The lyrics of the song provided a wickedly irreverent counter point to the musical jubilation, indicting religion with lines such as “I'm wounded by dust” and “I'm not a woman to go and place blame, but you said it was coming on Judgment Day.” Marling's interplay of religious uncertainty and orchestral beauty provided a delightfully cheeky end to a concert full of musical revelations and poetic confessions.
Laura Marling was meant to perform in venues like Grace Cathedral. The clarity of her voice and the openness of her lyrics resound that much more strongly in a place built for contemplation and reflection, and you can't help but steep yourself in the beauty of being present for such a union.
Setlist: Rambling Man Blackberry Stone Alas, I Cannot Swim Rest In the Bed The Muse Hope In the Air ----solo---- What He Wrote Night After Night Oh Rosie (New Song) Once (New Song) Blues Run the Game (cover) Goodbye to England (Covered In Snow) ----end solo---- Don't Ask Me Why Sophia I Speak Because I Can