Live Review: Laura Marling at Showbox at the Market 4/28/17

photos by Matthew B. Thompson

For many years, the mantle of “most consistently stellar artist” seemed to be squarely on the shoulders of Spoon, but there’s an argument for it to be moved over, if it hasn’t already shifted, to Laura Marling. Six very good-to-great albums that each built on its predecessor will do that, though. In a live setting, however, Marling has primarily switched between a four-piece and solo setup, often highlighting her songs rather than her performance. That’s certainly not a bad thing, because when you have a catalog as rich and surprisingly recent as Marling’s, you would want to show it off too. (This is to say nothing of her underrated guitar playing.) But for the first time, Marling’s tour feels like an effort to embrace the performative aspect of being a touring musician. She’s always been, and likely will always be, one of the premier British songwriters of her generation, but backed with her largest-ever touring band with more visual production than ever, Marling has moved into new territory as a performer.

In some aspects, Semper Femina, Marling’s sixth and most recent album, doesn’t stray too far from her comfort zone. It’s primarily an acoustic affair, spacious enough to allow her agile guitar work coexist with her increasingly pronounced lyrics, and at a crisp 40 minutes, brisk. However, it’s the first Marling album to sound like something constructed by a band and then recorded in a studio and not the other way around. (The live version included with the album seemingly confirms as much.) So, with a full band (guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and backing singers) behind her, Marling started the set playing to the album’s strength by, well, playing most of the album. Seven Semper Femina tracks opened the set, each with a little more force – a descriptor that would be hard to apply to Marling’s previous tours – than the recorded version.

Rallying around the strength of having a full band instead of her own dextrous guitar playing, Marling’s arrangements echoed the recorded versions, but with more instrumental richness and muscle. And while she took a brief break to perform the opening suite of 2013’s I Was Once An Eagle by herself – the 15+ minute piece is one of her finest moments as a guitarist, and since it’s probably her single best showcase of her guitar skills, it will probably always be a staple for her shows – the rest of the set went back to the full band format for a slew of old favorites, including the dazzling pair of dyads of “Salinas”/”Sophia” and “Darkness Descends”/”Rambling Man”. For an artist who has more than proven her ability to play guitar and write songs around circles anyone who’d challenge her, it’s a huge step forward for her to lean away from her strengths and put her songs in the hands of so many others for such a significant part of the show. (And while she is shaping up to be a fine bandleader, regarding being a frontwoman, the typically quiet Marling was slightly more talkative than usual, but it’s more likely that she’ll start playing death metal than her ever reaching anything resembling a Misty-esque onstage loquaciousness.)

The hook to Marling’s last album, 2015’s Short Movie, was that, to co-opt a term from her folk rock predecessors, Marling “went electric”, prominently utilizing electric guitar and embracing Los Angeles like she’d channeled London for all her previous works. So when she left Los Angeles and returned to England ahead of Semper Femina, it would be easy (albeit a little cliche) to say that Marling was getting back to her roots. But Semper Femina doesn’t sound or feel like any of her previous albums. It’s too mature to mirror the youthful wide eyes of Alas, I Cannot Swim, too loose to be as studied and constructed as I Speak Because I Can, far more spacious than (what is probably its closest relative) A Creature I Don’t Know, and not as sprawling as the ambitious I Was Once An Eagle. To compare Marling to another artist whose songwriting reflected a steadily growing persona, Semper Femina is her The River, the album that crystallizes everything she’s done while setting up the next move. That’s not to say Marling is planning on jumping to another commercial level anytime soon, like The Boss did in 1980, but for the first time in her career, the notion of being a more engaging performer seems to be on her radar.

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