Monthly Archives: October 2013
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 01/10/2013
Support: Nick Mulvey
The Birmingham Symphony Hall is a pretty big venue. It doesn’t exactly rival London’s O2 Arena, but it’s certainly sizable to the point that it’s easy to imagine solo performers feeling swallowed up by the space afforded to them; suffocated by the pressure of performing on such a large stage to roughly 2,250 people. On this particular evening, Nick Mulvey even refers to such a fact during his opening set preceding Laura Marling: “Hi guys, I’m Nick Mulvey… and this place is huge.”
It may send laughter rippling throughout the room, but Mulvey’s stance is clear to everyone present. From our vantage point in the upper circle, the acoustic singer-songwriter appears dwarfed, both by the vertiginous dimensions of the building, and also by the stage itself. Standing dead-centre in an orchestra-sized expanse, Mulvey cuts a lonely figure onstage. It’s a big undertaking to cast one’s stall in such a way, and it’s easy to imagine over-jittery nerves tipping such a performance into disaster.
But, thanks to his own creative gifts and easy grace, Mulvey achieves the remarkable: he delivers a set which is not only musically deft, but personable and utterly charming. Even armed only with his guitar and his (highly capable) voice, his presence completely fills the hall, with every sound and syllable circulating like a warm, refreshing breeze. Over the course of roughly forty minutes, Mulvey wins many new fans, running through a stunning assemblage of songs pulled from various EPs, including several from his latest work, Fever to the Form.
Opening with the sombre flamenco of ‘April’, Mulvey is immediately captivating, and across the night, demonstrates his prowess as a true virtuoso of the guitar. ‘Venus’ captivates with its rich imagery (“she plaits her hair in threads of gold”) and subtle transition into a revelatory coda, and the likes of ‘Juramidam’ and a cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ reveal a rather soulful emotional bite. Even his husky vocal range proves capable of taking flight, and by his set’s conclusion, the applause from the crowds is beyond appreciative: it is genuinely enchanted.
When Marling herself arrives, it is only with some surprise that she emerges solo, too. Her fourth album – Once I Was An Eagle – sounds skeletal enough as it is, boiled down to Marling herself alongside two other key players (multi-instrumentalist / producer Ethan Johns, and cellist Ruth de Turbeville). Yet here, Marling has gone one step further: as with Mulvey, she only has her own dexterity on which to rely, channelled by a pair of acoustic guitars (one sleek and sexy, the other a “grumpy old man” to serve as a spare), and her polite between-song charm (which proves to be as endearingly timid as ever).
So yes, it’s a very stark and simple rendition – and it’s in exactly these conditions in which Marling is best suited. As wonderful as it is to envisage her shows at the Secret Cinema venues earlier this year, in truth, her music needs no dressing-up to resonate with such power. And so it proves, as she begins with the four-song medley which opens her latest masterpiece. There are a few vocal wobbles (and a decidedly American inflection) during the quasi-title track as she warms up her pipes, but by the time of a revelatory take of ‘I Speak Because I Can’, she is positively soaring, her words dancing around the heights of the vaulted concert hall.
Aside from the interruptions of one plonkish punter who keeps clapping at inopportune moments, the performance is immaculate. Even when Marling pops a string on her first guitar, she simply screws up her face in twee frustration and maintains momentum as she switches to her backup. The evening proffers a neat spread of songs, cherry-picked from each of her four studio albums, plus two other curios: a newbie (tentatively titled ‘How Can I?’), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘For the Sake of the Song’. Elsewhere, her career highlights are all beautifully rendered, with a tangible warmth to match. ‘Blackberry Stone’ is achingly tender to behold, especially as Marling adds an additional falsetto leap to the final refrain. By contrast, ‘Alas, I Cannot Swim’ sounds dappled in sunshine, and ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ is a little more fiery than its recorded version, with a touch more resilience at its core.
By the time Marling completes her set with a stirring, heartwarming jig of ‘Where Can I Go?’, everybody present is perched in the palm of her little love-castin’ hand. She departs the stage with a characteristically coy wave and a smile: as unshowy and unfussy as everything that precludes it. Yet, as ever with Marling, there is no need for spectacle. Carried on the wings of her own talent, hers is music which is built to soar, no matter how it is packaged. How lucky we are to have her.
Take the Night Off // I Was an Eagle // You Know // Breathe // Master Hunter // Ghosts // Alas, I Cannot Swim // Blackberry Stone // Love be Brave // I Speak Because I Can // Rambling Man // What He Wrote // Alpha Shadows // Devil’s Resting Place // How Can I? // Sophia // Don’t Ask Me Why // For the Sake of the Song // Where Can I Go?