Laura Marling’s When the Bell Tolls tour brings her new album A Creature I Don’t Know to some of Britain’s best loved cathedrals. When I found out she would be playing at my best loved cathedral- York Minster of course, you heathen- I decided to go and see what the NME and Brit-award winning singer and guitarist would make of York’s biggest landmark.
Entering the venue, the stage set-up was deceptively low-key; the performance area seemed almost lost in the cavernous, vaulted space that is the minster. Adorning the platform were the familiar black-and-white sketches featured in the album art of A Creature I Don’t Know, whose stark backgrounds were ideal for the lighting, which shifted between colours in an ambient ebb and flow. The stage was also littered with an intriguing array of instruments, which promised a lengthy and varied performance.
Support band The Leisure Society put on a creditable performance. It took them a couple of songs to adjust to the acoustic, and their violinist and flautist were unfairly overshadowed- I thought- by the front-man and keyboard player. Despite this, however, they very quickly relaxed and were able to showcase a number of catchy, well-put-together songs. Certainly a pop-folk band to watch in future, Leisure Society, most importantly, did an excellent job of highlighting the cathedral’s acoustic potential.
The main performance ended up coming, roughly, in three sections. Marling first appeared alongside her band, performing mostly newer songs from the last two albums. This first part seemed to be far more about the power and the tone of the sound, rather than the finesse and delicacy which so characterise her work.
After four or five songs however, the band troop offstage leaving Marling- but for a souped-up microphone- ‘alone at last’, as she put it. Then began a far more intimate, and I thought more striking and distinctive collection of songs, including covers and old favourites from first album Alas, I Cannot Swim. The strangely paradoxical juxtaposition of the artist’s small figure and large voice, the shy inter-song banter and the grandeur of the minster, leant an absolutely fresh perspective on an artist I thought I knew.
Despite being mortified to see the band returning for the third section, my misgivings proved unfounded. The best elements of the first and second sections seemed to be combined, to produce an ensemble performance centred around Marling, growing song on song to a tumultuous finale.
It’s so easy to forget the raw and unfettered brilliance of a vocal talent like Marling’s when it’s confined in recording. In this cathedral, as undoubtedly in the others on this tour, you’re hearing one of the greatest voices of our age augmented by one of the greatest and most intricate structures of any age. When the Bell Tolls is not, as Laura asserts, her own ‘self-indulgence’: it makes perfect sense as a performance, and is a truly unforgettable experience.