It is midnight sometime in London Saturday night and Sunday morning at Church cum concert Hall Union Chapel, but it could have been nine years earlier when in faded jeans and turtleneck sweater and a collection of guitars, Laura Marling might have been 21 years of age again and it might have been The McKittrick Hotel (here) though the McKittrick doesn’t have the beauty, vastness, cultural hee haw or just plain weirdness of Union Chapel last night. Still, there was Laura again, english rose steeped in a UK mostly reachable through memory, pushing the product with a handful of outliers added for pace though not speed, and confronting isolation with a beautifully directed, swarmingly emotional, full blown set that wasn’t.
Certainly, if concerts in hibernation, not to mention social distancing, won’t come much better than this, this and the first Dropkick Murphy’s show (not the one at Wrigley field, that was creepy) show possibilities, there is no mistaking it for actually seeing it in person even when you include the $14 entrance fee and sold and meaningless sold out sign on the window. With a new album, Song For A Daughter (not bad, not great, two or three second tier Laura songs and all three performed last night/morning, a lot of alright stuff but no more than that, essentially Laura’s M.O. post-Once I Was An Eagle) she performed two sets at Union Chapel and both sold out…
For no good reason, but a coupla bad ones, Laura chose to put a cap on the amount of tickets sold to the concert and result was a sell out and the addition of a set. Marling wanted to change the playing field for live streamed concert in a stunningly beautiful and empty room (except for stage hands and engineers we barely see -just a guitar tech guy once, wearing a mask) and a three camera set up to bring you more into a world of people and not the stoical one camera set up of all those streaming for their NHS heroes stuff: Laura, who has been known to perform solo, performed solo only you are/are not there.
Her urge, her business model, was to make the live streaming experience unique the way a concert is unique: limited ticketing and exclusivity togetherness and so when it sold out instead of simply releasing more tickets (the number she could could have sold could, unless it crashed the hosting service dice.com, have been limitless). Why? Why perform two hour long performance instead of one two hour performance? Why rush the hour? Clearly her urge was some form of replication, to give her fans something personal between us. And if you consider zoom sex the equal of intercourse, well good for her, right?
And even that isn’t quite fair. There was something about the proceedings that felt nothing like anything else, and also as a part of her ongoing live experience. To wit, the last time I saw Laura on stage was at the Town Hall in 2015, this is the first four songs:
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
At St. Ann’s Cathedral in 2013?
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
It’s simple, when you have written the best four song suite of the 2010s you are gonna want to perform and so she did just that through “Breathe” but followed it with the blandish “Wild Fire” and two more new songs before unfurling “Tap At My Window -a goodie not a greatie off her debut, a not making any real sense to include it at all, and followed it with another newbie and then another newbie and by now it is getting a little boring. Beautiful but tedious as she backs into her set of songs that fail to indent itself, so she was there to introduce new songs, revisit a fan faves and disappoint me by not including “Sophia” or “Ghosts” . It was a dour yet kind set, no messing around just straight up folk pop guitar strummed plods by a sometimes brilliant sexual diplomat. One problem with post-Eagle is that Laura has nothing much to say about feminism but plenty about men, she plays men and she, if not understands them, knows how to speak to them and it is enthralling to watch her men squirm. Much more interesting than listening to her sing to her imaginary daughter on “Strange Girl”…
“I love you my strange girl
My lonely girl, my angry girl
Since the girl doesn’t exist is she suggesting that the social inhibitions and mood she wants to provide her daughter is loneliness and anger? Bravery sure, but surely better attributes would be popularity and good humor? My bet is that Laura isn’t great with feminism because it doesn’t matter as much as she wishes it did: the strange girl is clearly her, and what interests her is sex and romance and three dimensional emotional chess, and she writes about it with some of the brilliance of a Joni Mitchell and for the same reasons: they are both attractive to men and therefore the problems morph in other directions to where they attempt to harness it.
For an hour, Laura stood stoical and beautiful in the middle of an empty chapel as, in a particularly strange velvet rope, she wouldn’t let people in even if they wanted to pay, for no good reason. She didn’t speak, she didn’t join us in the way an in person performance clearly does, I’ve seen her many times and she is a talker -mostly because she has a problem keeping her guitar in tune so she speaks while tuning it, and she didn’t make up for only going out of tune once. With no clapping, not even fake clapping, the Chapel was Church Of England during a Sunday morning sermon quiet except for the stroke of her fingers on the strings and the sound of her voice from soprano to falsetto, an intense angry, sad lonely glare of her eyes which seems to drift upwards to a middle distance where there was no one to answer her eyes (except maybe a teleprompter). It was all ambience and sad mood, all otherness between what is and what was that only really mattered twice (out of three shots at audience pleasing), an expressly strong “Strange Girl” followed by a glorious “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow),” a song that resonates for all us expats, the only time you thought: “I’m happy I didn’t miss that”,” the final of the triumvirate isn’t a personal;favorite but her most popular on Spotify -the 14M streamed “What He Wrote” (it should have been “Rambling Man”). Otherwise, despite saving “How Can I” she couldn’t undercut her self-importance and extreme seriousness by even smiling at us. She came across the way she does in interviews and not usually on stage: overprivileged VIP. With no mistaking that for Laura this was a business gambit, a way to make money at her job, and a way to give her audience a true live experience, I was surprised to learn the concert was a benefit for Union Chapel, making her decision to close the doors with two thousand viewers even more bizarre. Perhaps the seriousness of the times tempered her temper, certainly it was not a pleasant experience despite its loveliness: we were stuck between admiration and knowing there needs to be more, we were stuck with Laura in a bad place and she wasn’t interested in bailing us out and that made her less interesting.
And the it was over. No goodbye to the US, Laura just cut it off after a sufficient hour of distilled new songs and we went our separate ways back to our own personal hells, none the wiser.
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