It’s an hour until Laura Marling is due to perform, the tiny interior of The Caves is already crammed, and the crowd is restless. Some gaze around, discussing how lucky they were to get tickets. A boy takes out a copy of Gulliver’s Travels, and frowns at the pages ostentatiously. There is no support act tonight.
Marling’s choice of venue might seem surprising; the last time she was in Edinburgh, she played the Usher Hall. Over the course of her development from teenage folk-pop protégé to mature songwriter, her increasing popularity has often necessitated expansive and echoing venues that risk diluting the impact of her music. For this four-date tour, scheduled in advance of her fifth album Short Movie, bemusement followed excitement when it was announced that the shows would be in small venues, with tickets allocated by a ‘lucky-dip’ process, meaning that a lot of fans would miss out.
But for those who made it in, the evening is clearly a special one. Marling’s sudden appearance onstage quells the crowd’s chatter, and as she opens with a new song, ‘False Hope’, the audience is rapt. With understated clothes, short hair, and an impressive array of guitars, her close proximity to the crowd ensures that she is the complete focus of their attention. Contrary to expectations, Marling explains that she doesn’t just want to perform her new material – ‘It annoys me when I go to gigs and don’t know any of the songs,’ she smiles – and includes a range of tracks from her last three albums, including particularly heartfelt versions of ‘What He Wrote’ and ‘Rambling Man’.
However, the audience’s enthusiasm for these favourites is matched by curiosity to hear her new work. The song ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’ gets a lengthy introduction featuring philosophers and cults, delivered in Marling’s soft English accent that contrasts with her increasingly raw, American-inflected singing, a clear progression from her past couple of albums. Similarly, in ‘Strange’, the rough guitars present in Once I Was An Eagle vie for attention with experimental, half-spoken vocals.
When this style is used for older tracks, it’s not always as successful – a guitar-heavy rendition of ‘Salinas’ drowns out the more subtle melodies of the song – but a startlingly aggressive performance of ‘Master Hunter’ strikes me as the peak of the gig. Just as I start to wonder how the new material can surpass this, Marling moves into a quiet, vulnerable performance of new song ‘Walk Alone’, her band falling away to leave her playing unaccompanied. This shift from intensity into stillness is both reassurance that Marling knows exactly what she’s doing, and the beating heart of the gig.
It’s not quite the end, however. Marling doesn’t do encores, choosing to finish with a triumphant performance of the album’s title track, ‘Short Movie’. It’s a joyful moment, and for the first time the crowd can be heard singing along.
As the energy rises up to the arched ceiling, Marling slips offstage, confident that any doubts about her new album have been quashed. The only difficulty remaining is how to make the experience of such an intimate and memorable gig available to more of her adoring fans.