Laura Marling + Ethan Johns with The Black Eyed Dogs @ O2 Institute, Birmingham, UK – 14th March 2017Posted by Bianca on Tuesday Mar 14, 2017 Under Folk, Folk rock, Singer/Songwriter
I’m used to seeing Marling seated. I say ‘used to’ as I first saw her tour with her debut album ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ in 2008, when you were able to purchase a limited edition kit with album AND gig ticket (and prints, and more!) in one. I’ve seen her at least once on every tour since then, as a committed (and some may say obsessive) fan ever since. This includes multiple cathedral and church shows, travelling up and down the country to see her, and add into the mix seeing her as part of Secret Music, seeing one of her lottery gigs last year in a teeny tiny club in London, seeing her record her Mastertapes show for BBC Radio 4, and even seeing her once at a café in Clerkenwell where friends bullied me into saying hello which resulted in me babbling at her apologetically for how much I love her and then running away LIKE AN UTTER WEIRDO.
Fast forward to 2017, and the release of her sixth studio album ‘Semper Femina’ (which I was lucky enough to gain early access to review, which you can find HERE.) I’m still in love, so do not anticipate any degree of impartiality to this review. She is a glowing ephemeral nymph, and this evening’s performance in no way altered that view.
First though, I plead you search out Ethan Johns. His appearance as support was a wonderful surprise. On stage, a silver haired fox of a man with a guitar which sounded like a steel guitar but which looked just like any old acoustic, accompanied by a much younger disheveled girl in dungarees on violin and a drummer and a bassist. This was a surprise because a) I’d no clue who the support was beforehand, and b) I didn’t recognise him. Last I’d seen of him, he’d been sat alongside Marling at Maida Vale discussing Once I Was an Eagle and musical processes in general. He’d been wearing a broad brimmed cowboy hat, and had accompanied her on a number of tracks. He’d done this because, as it turned out, Ethan Johns was the producer not only of one, but of 3 Marling albums and a quick skim read of his wiki page shows his production repertoire also includes the likes of The Staves, Ray Lamontagne, Leona Naess (yep, google her!), Counting Crows, Rufus Wainwright, and Ryan Adams – plus many more. In fact any musician with a slight Americana edge that I have EVER bought seemed to have been produced by this wonderful humble genius of a man. And here, it turns out, he makes his own music, and unsurprisingly caught my attention with his dark country sound. Whilst his latest release, ‘Silver Lining’, we’re treated to a slightly more upbeat Johns as seen in tracks like ‘I Don’t Mind’, but it’s his darker older material that has piqued my curiosity the most – and so I came away with a copy of ‘The Reckoning’, an older album with the most beautiful papercut artwork, and produced by Ryan Adams. Go check out Ethan Johns. Right now.
Marling was her usual enigmatic self. She has been criticized for her lack of emotion during her performances, but having seen her many times I feel like – at least initially – this was (and is?) a way for her to focus and immerse herself in the act of performing, without allowing an audience to disrupt or interrupt her. The act of performing appears almost meditative for Marling, chin tilted up and staring into the distance as she meticulously picks at her guitar. This is someone allowing us to voyeuristically observe a precious moment, bear witness to her voice clear and at times pained. With a set consisting of many tracks from Semper Femina, this performance was less aching than other shows I’ve seen, and instead full of everything I noted in my review of the album. Her rumination on femininity, female friendships, female relationships, and everything about her stage setup oozed femininity – from the bundles of flowers and greenery clustered on every surface, to the addition of her two female backing singers, to her choice of attire – a white gown embellished with lace, both chaste and deeply feminine.
Live versions of Wild Fire and Don’t Pass Me By were even better than the album tracks, and Soothing was an absolute treat (and a killer track to begin her set with!) I’m sill uncertain over how I feel about The Valley, and the live version did nothing new to persuade me one way or another. There was nothing to fault with the performance, but this track just doesn’t quite excite me or sadden me enough – the two emotions I revel most in in Marling’s music.
Nouel was beautiful, and grows on me more each time I hear it. Daisy, a track left off from Short Movie and still not recorded, was a treat to hear, and favourites Sophia and Salinas did not disappoint. The problem with reviewing a gig with a photographer friend is that you get a sneaky peek at the setlist and I was SO excited to see my favourite track ‘How Can I?’ listed towards the end of the set.. however as those of you who’ve seen her live before know, Marling does not do encores. She doesn’t see the point in the unnecessary charade of pretending to leave the stage only to return for one more track. So when she skipped ‘How Can I?’ and went straight into her encore explanation before Darkness Descends, I suspected I might leave with a MINUTE tinge of disappointment – simply from seeing the original setlist… and indeed she led from Darkness straight into Rambling Man. To be totally clear – I disappointed myself, and she did nothing wrong. Because, if you hadn’t already gathered, she is A BEAUTIFUL MYSTICAL EPHEMERAL CREATURE and long may she continue writing and performing music!
HOT TIP – on this tour she seems to be creating daily limited edition prints of the Semper Femina sigil – in postcard size and a larger (A3?) size. When I left the venue I decided to grab the smaller size, but they’d sold out. I luckily nabbed one dated from the night before, so if you’re a bit of an obsessive like I apparently am when it comes to Marling, make your choice BEFOREHAND and don’t leave it till the end of the night!
Don’t Pass Me By
Always This Way
Nothing Not Nearly
Night After Night
Don’t Ask Me Why