Laura Marling was alone on the Athenaeum’s stage Thursday night (May 23), standing in a white spotlight with a dark expanse of floor all around her. She has played with a backup group on some previous tours, but this time, it was just her voice and her guitar. That was all she needed.
Marling’s records, including the superb new Once I Was an Eagle, show that she’s a marvelous singer and songwriter. Her concert performance demonstrated another great talent: her guitar playing, which was highly expressive, using many alternate tunings and inventive compositions that allowed her to play melodies up and down a few strings while the chords formed by the open strings continued to ring out.
She joked and apologized about all of the time she spent tuning her guitar between songs. “They should advertise now that my concerts are 15 percent tuning,” she said at one point. And later: “My next album is going to be called ‘Tuning.’” Marling’s good-natured stage banter made up for the long tuning pauses.
She started the concert with an uninterrupted suite of songs off the new album, which stretched out to epic length, somewhere around 12 minutes. That one suite covered so much musical, lyrical and emotional ground that it felt like a miniature concert unto itself.
Marling played one brand-new song, newer than the new album. It opened with the lyrics: “I look west and I believe. He looks east and thinks of me.” Marling noted that she debuted another song during a previous Chicago concert. “I’m going to … make Chicago my debuting city,” she remarked.
On a couple of the songs from previous albums, audience members shouted “woo!” when she sang the opening lines, which made her laugh midsong. “I forget that people come to gigs to hear me,” she said.
After warning the audience that she wasn’t sure she would be able to remember how to play her song, “Hope in the Air,” Marling did indeed find herself blanking out on the lyrics. She stopped, and audience members shouted out the words, helping her back into the song. Afterward, she said, “I was just bragging this afternoon how I never write down the words to any of my songs.”
She may not write them down, but they’re clearly etched in the memory of her fans.