When I moved to Oakland, only a short bridge span from San Francisco, I expected to spend most of my days in the City by the Bay, riding trams through Embarcadero, mingling with hippies in Haight Ashbury, and drinking Anchor Steam late into the Mission dusk. In reality I ended up spending most of my days in front of my desk trying to memorize the Krebs cycle. I do still find time to cross the bridge, and once a week or so I’ll drop by to see my sister and work a few shifts as a research assistant at the general hospital. For the most part though, I’ve been confined to the East Bay (I think some of the inmates at Alcatraz had a better view of San Francisco than I’ve had).
This is part of the reason why I was so crazily, utterly, wildly ecstatic to be offered free, front row tickets to see Laura Marling at Grace Cathedral the other night. That’s right. That Grace Cathedral. Not only was I seeing one of the greatest folk artists of our generation, I was ticking one of the city’s greatest landmarks off my Must Visit list at the same time.
My sister very graciously offered me her tickets, after her friend Abby (who is wonderful and funny and very very kind) told her she had two spare seats at a show that just happened to be the same night as Holly’s book club. After informing Abby of her prior engagement through what I imagine were very clenched teeth, Holly, in true, noble, characteristic, folk-loving fashion suggested to Abby that her younger brother might like to see Laura Marling instead. Smart investment, Holly. Today you give me free concert tickets. Tomorrow (by which I mean in several decades time) your presently unborn children will have free reign in my nationally-renowned pediatric practice.
Most of my Marling-loving friends are confined to England and though I know
Sam some would cross the pond for her in a heartbeat, the performance was only 24 hours away. I had to find someone fast, and after briefly interviewing my closest friends on their opinions on folk music, settled on the lovely Melanie.
We arrived a bajillion hours too early, but passed the time in the nearby dog park wondering how long it would be till we were cool enough to move to San Francisco proper (people were actually drinking red wine while they walked their dogs. Seriously, is there some sort of hipster handbook I was supposed to receive in the mail?). After contacting Abby and tentatively asking if we might maybe you know possibly be able to watch Laura Marling’s sound check, we were given the enthusiastic go-ahead and allowed to bypass the line that was beginning to emerge from the entrance of Grace Cathedral. We only caught a glimpse of her from one end of the massive building before she went backstage, and Melanie and I were given a dizzying tour of the roof and belltower.
The performance was opened by Willy Mason, an artist who is so incomprehensibly underrated, I would have come just to see him headline alone. He seems to be only known for that one brilliant song, but he played a full set’s worth of cracking tunes. It also helped that his magnificent voice carried so beautifully into the depths of Grace Cathedral vastness. (You could burp in there and it would sound like a masterpiece.) Do me a favour, reader. Go take a look at Willy Mason’s current tour dates and if he winds up in a city near you, pay him a visit. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
And then finally, Laura Marling appeared. The crowd offered a polite cathedral clap as she entered with her band, but all pretenses of chastity and restraint were dropped the second she sat down. She was wearing a long flowery dress, and as she crossed her legs and revealed just a teensy bit of delicate calf to the audience, a collective sigh was uttered by every man in the audience. She really is beautiful. I’ve always received a similar impression from Laura Marling’s music. She sells records with her angelic blondness and beauty, but her songs are crafted from tough, gristly experiences. Those who write about her frequently refer to her humble musical beginnings, how she was nominated for a Mercury Prize at only 18, how she seems to have charming love affairs with all the London folk artists. But she is certainly a grown-up, and her performance made a point of showing it.
I found the most impressive thing about her newest album ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ to be her embrace of traditional folk, even Celtic-ish melodies. Rather than just rely on the dependable, repetitive chord progressions of her present day “nu-folk” peers, she experiments with complex melodies and guitar tunings. Having seen her in concert I now realize what an advanced guitar player she is, and a good guitar-playing girl really is an unfortunate rarity in modern folk music.
After a couple of songs, Laura Marling paused to retune her guitar. The cathedral sat patiently in the quiet darkness as she worked. Suddenly aware of what must have seemed to her to be a gigantic awkward silence, she said quietly into the microphone, “Stage banter isn’t really my strong point.” We all laughed at her generous self-deprecation, but beneath the sweetness there was a sharpness. We were being told by Laura in the most disarmingly charming way that we had to take what she was offering, and that we shouldn’t expect any comforting small-talk from her any time soon. This is part of the duality that defines Laura Marling, an innocence and a cold reality that to me just seems so quintessentially English. I’m not complaining, however. In that dress, with that voice, with those legs, I could sit and watch her tune a guitar all night.
Check out the video above to hear that stunning voice in action, and if that’s still not enough, take a listen to her very folky single ‘All My Rage’ from her new album A Creature I Don’t Know.