Mercury nominee returns to her old neighbourhood...

To mark the last date of her UK tour, Laura Marling returns to her old haunt of east London to play a 1920s-built hall once voted Britain’s sixth-best boxing venue.

Tonight, testosterone, sweat and cheers of “punch his lights out” are swapped for beards or tea dresses, cosy cardigans and sensible shoes, which tends to be the attire of your general Marling fan.

Bethnal Green’s York Hall is sold out, yet still a quarter empty. Instead of burly men and a ring, there’s just a slight 23-year-old and her guitar. Marling doesn’t need any more.

“Hello, my name’s Laura Marling. It’s very nice to meet you.” Her spoken-voice accent’s still very English, lacking the LA twang that can come through these days when she sings. She opens with the sublime ‘Take The Night Off’, the opening track on latest record ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ (Clash review). Her voice is as rich as it’s ever been live, and you can tell she’s been on stage for the past few weeks. It’s soft, yet cuts to the core as she sings, “I don’t care where you’ve gone, beast.” There’s not a hint of nerves or fear, but also no arrogance.

She follows this first song with ‘I Was An Eagle’, ‘You Know’ and ‘Breathe’, all just as strong as the album versions despite no percussion or strings. She occasionally swaps singing for what verges on spoken word, channelling the likes of Dylan or Nico. Not only is it mesmerisin, but it reinforces her reputation as one of the best songwriters we have.

‘Master Hunter’ is frantic and exciting, despite her guitar being cut off mid intro – faster than on record, but just as captivating. Marling almost turns preacher as she looks to the sky and sings with conviction. The occasional whoop shows her audience is hanging on her every word.

But it’s not all about the latest album. There’s room for a new song, ‘One Day Soon’, worlds away from what precedes it. Marling effortlessly hits the most beautiful high note in a song that is more soulful and less folk-blues than her others, giving us a hint at what might come on the next album.

And unlike her performance at Secret Music earlier this year, there’s room for some oldies. ‘I Speak Because I Can’ and ‘Rambling Man’, one almost running into the other, are brilliant, while ‘What He Wrote’, a tale of lost love, is heart-breaking and huge sounding in this echoing hall.

When the better-known numbers are played, the audience feels like the time’s right to jump in, which can be a little awkward when there’s only one person on stage.  Not here, though: Marling even gives a little chuckle as a few voices accompany her on ‘Ghosts’, with its new arrangement bringing a country twist, and pretty much everyone joins in on ‘Alas, I Can Not Swim’.

‘Blackberry Stone’ and ‘Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)’ are as relaxed and personal as a Paul Simon song, pretty and quintessentially English. “Move back here.” someone shouts as Marling reminisces about her east London days and its good coffee. It’s still sore to think we’ve lost her to the dazzling lights and sunny days of America’s west coast.

Before she heads off stage and her obligatory “I don’t do encores” speech, we’re treated to a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘For The Sake Of The Song’. It’s a nice addition, but just not Marling. The evening ends with ‘Where Can I Go’. Here, some over-vigorous stomping from one audience member slightly steals the spotlight from the singer herself, but doesn’t ruin what’s been an enchanting evening in a spacious, yet still intimate, setting. Lovely.

Oh, and let’s not forget Clash favourite Nick Mulvey, who’s been supporting Marling throughout her UK dates. He’s definitely made some new friends with his brilliant rhythmic guitar playing and excellent songs. New single ‘Nitrous Man’, ending with a dash of a ‘90s rave classic, is performed beside selections from his recent EP and upcoming album. That Marling has good taste.

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Words: Gemma Hampson

Photos: Marc Sethi (website)

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