On a dark, breezy and chilly night in Manchester, the idea of stepping into a Cathedral after hours would usually sound rather strange and ultimately a little unnerving. However, tonight was an exception, as we were prepared for a warming evening with a certain Laura Marling as our host.
The 21 year-old is currently roaming between our nations most holiest of sites, as part of her ‘When The Bell Tolls’ tour. In support of her recently released album of beauty, A Creature I Don’t Know, it was Manchester’s turn to welcome her to our eerie yet stunning Cathedral. As a magnificent historical site that has suffered many ups and downs, including the shocks of the Second World War Blitz and the 1996 IRA bomb, the 15th Century building deemed to be the most perfect of settings for an explosive show such as this. Not only for the likes of Laura Marling’s folky charms and angelic voice, but also her music, which can be of a dark, Gothic nature, and quite clearly reference the Church, deep prayers and the temptations between God and the Devil.
Opening the show was the wonderfully talented The Leisure Society. On this occasion it was a stripped-back affair, most likely because of the setting and lack of stage area. However, even without bass or drums, the simplicity of keys, violin, vocals and percussion provided half an hour of absolute charm. Playing a number of tracks from their 2011 effort Into The Murky Water, the guys ended with a lovely rendition of Save It For Someone Who Cares, encouraging the crowd to clap along. It seemed the band, as well as Marling, were particularly chuffed that Manchester had provided them with their first standing crowd of the tour, and even more so, a crowd who had been permitted to drink…adding a touch of extra atmosphere to the more upbeat moments.
After a brief thirty minutes of rest, in which most people spent gazing around at their surroundings, taking in the stunning architecture and flickering candles, Miss Laura Marling and band took to the stage. Avoiding all temptations to reference angels etc, etc, it was a genuine pleasure to see the girl from Hampshire in a more intimate area, having seen her last at a slightly out-of-her-depth gig on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
Accompanied by keys, drums, guitar, double bass and strings, Laura and co. brought the lights down and headed into the story-like I Was Just A Card, followed by The Muse and a gorgeous rendition of Ghosts. A satisfied smile remained on the faces of most from this point, in the realisation that this was growing into something very special. In gothic-cathedral-like fashion, Marling then preached the words of The Beast, a key character from her most recent offering, to an awestruck congregation, hanging on every word of her sermon.
What then followed was twenty-minutes of unbeatable, bewitching beauty. Her backing band left the stage, leaving Marling in the dimmed spotlight, unintentionally providing a large, moving shadow of herself on the medieval walls. Drawing in an excited and satisfied breath as she played the first notes of Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), I daresay I let it go for the entire song. After an equally jaw-dropping Night Terror, which included some grade A whistling from our host, two non-album tracks then followed, including Flicker And Fail, a sensational song which Laura claimed to have co-wrote with her father.
It was at this moment (and in fact a moment that swiftly followed these 5 minutes) that my personal hopes were met with astonishing satisfaction. Ever since hearing Night After Night for the first time, and admittedly being left an emotional wreck, I knew that this would be the most stunning and heartfelt song I’d possibly ever hear live. And in these amazing and intimate surroundings, only a foot or two from it’s creator, I was bowled over….completely bowled over.
And she didn’t half add to this, having invited the band back on stage to bash out My Friends, a second personal favourite! But what can essentially be said about this young, famously shy, 21 year-old, is that her music clearly reflects her growth in maturity. My Friends is another example of her superb story-telling, but also harks back to a moment of weakness; a brief, personal second where she acknowledges her own situation and growth as a hugely popular artist – ‘I hope your Mother knows, where it is you have been, I hope your Mother knows, what it is you have seen….She’d be so proud.’
Her infamous lack of stage ‘banter’ has also improved over time, as she talks to the crowd by actually looking at them this time round, as well as discussing her music and even cracking the odd joke here and there. In addition, instead of introducing her band, she gives them the opportunity to throw a fact or two our way, her own one, quite deservedly, being the most popular…’That end wall that I’m facing, is in fact, older than Liverpool!’
The set drew to an end with a rich range of tracks from all three albums, including the gorgeous Sophia, My Manic And I, and Rambling Man. A foot-stomping rendition of All My Rage then brought it to a close, with the stained-glass and ancient pillars shaking under the weight of such a powerful, beating performance.
All in all, it was simply a stunning night. Confident and firmly driven at times; shy, emotional and fragile in others; it quite literally summed up Laura Marling and her music in one magnificent set. Even the slightly irritating, large number of pillars, which may have left some of crowd a little grumpy, didn’t get in the way of what was one of the finest events to have graced Manchester’s historical city.