LIVE (ish): Laura Marling – Union Chapel

In lockdown we’ve got into a kind of routine to mark the weekend. Online beer orders, takeaway, binge watching series. The one thing I’ve not previously done is an online gig, which is odd considering the amount of time I have dedicated to listening to music since mid-March.

The reason being, I feel a bit conflicted about (and I don’t even know what verb to use for an online gig, watch?) watching a gig, being so removed from the sights, sounds and even smells and the more abstract atmosphere – the electricity and expectation in the room. All the stuff live music fans have been missing the last few months. It’s all part of the big experience you pay for. How could an online performance be any different from watching a video of the artist in question playing live? Sitting down with my can of IPA and a box of sushi, swapping Netflix for a live stream of Laura Marling, certainly made it feel different.

And talking of expectation, having not “watched” a whole online gig, mine were low and based only on what little I’d already seen. I’d previously watched, for example, an online performance/interview with Laura for KEXP and it was a fixed camera, one mic, performed to camera, from her home. Simple but she achieved the stunning. Sure, this time it was coming from the beautiful surrounds of the Union Chapel, but wouldn’t it be like another video conference, only with someone playing the guitar? Watching a countdown timer on a screen was no match for the moment the lights go down in the venue.

Music aside, it was clear from the get go that this truly would be different. This was no ordinary online gig, it was a huge step up in production. Multiple camera angles, still choosing to use a venue, despite it being empty (and done presumably to help support the venue while it stays closed – nice move), slick production, amazing sound, full stage crew, photographers, even candles, title graphics for the start of each song and end credits listing thirty or more people involved in making the event happen. She’s supporting not just herself and the venue, but a whole industry and isn’t that just what it needs right now? Impressive as it was, it did initially feel like the extra professionalism removed a layer of intimacy. But this was quickly forgotten.

Opening with the four-song suite from Once I Was An Eagle was a guaranteed way to get the attention of any Picky Bastard. We might have mentioned before that it’s one of our favourites. But any fan would have been pleased with the selection of tunes from across her albums. ‘Tap At My Window’ from her debut, and ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’ were particularly pleasing surprises. They take on new life and meaning, stripped back to Laura, solo, and her voice noticeably more mature (for the better) than on her early albums. You couldn’t fail to be astounded by the strength and depth of her back catalogue. And although less familiar to me as a fan of her later albums, it was great to hear some songs from this point in her career.

Tracks from the new album, Song For Our Daughter, were personal highlights, if only for being the most familiar to me at the moment. Throughout, her singing and guitar playing was so effortless it was almost unbelievable. If you told me there was no set list at all and she played whatever song she felt like next, I’d barely question you.

And after an hour it was done. I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that it finished so soon, but isn’t leaving the, erm…crowd?… (again the usual words seem redundant) wanting more a good thing? Nonetheless it’s so impressive so see an artist perform for an hour almost non-stop, flawlessly. And how does she remember all those different tunings?

With Laura, her guitar, her voice and her songs, we’d love it no matter what, where or how she was doing it. But now she is leading the way in this new musical medium. Artists’ living room Zooms of a few short months ago have evolved beyond recognition in such a short space of time. She’s already managed to bring what could possibly be the album of 2020 forward by months, and has now performed possibly the best online gig of the year too. Everyone else best up their game.

Words by James Spearing

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