The last time English folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Marling played in Chicago — at the Athenaeum in 2013 — she played solo. For her return show on Wednesday, July 29, at Lincoln Hall, she brought a band. But for most of the night, the bass and drums stayed in the background, adding subtle shadings to the very full sound of Marling’s voice and guitar.
Marling cast a spell with her lovely singing, alternating between chatty half-spoken lines in a low register with sweet, fully sung melodies. All the while, she deftly picked out delicate patterns on her guitars, remarking at one point that she’s been practicing the Chet Atkins style of fingerpicking, which has necessitated allowing her thumb nail to grow longer, which she keeps having to explain to people. She demonstrated that technique on a nice cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”
Marling opened with the medley of songs that starts her 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle, and plenty a good selection from Short Movie, the fifth and latest album — one of my favorite records of 2015. She noted that she wrote one of the songs from the new album when she was backstage at the Athenaeum in Chicago in 2013. Marling once told an audience she’d like to move to Chicago, and people have asked her since then if she actually will. “I’m not,” she said, adding, “I came here on holiday two weeks ago. I really do like it. I’m not just saying that to be charming.”
The Marling fans at this sold-out show — a predominantly 20-something crowd with more women than men — were clearly charmed. When Marling forgot some of her early lyrics, she turned to the audience members in front of her for assistance.
Marling’s opening acts, Marika Hackman and Johnny Flynn, were a wonderful match with her. Both are singer-songwriters from England, and both played engrossing solo acoustic sets, making the whole evening feel like a mini-festival of Brit folk rock. Hackman (who was playing her first concert in Chicago) hooked me from the minute I heard her voice, prompting me to pick up her album We Slept at Last at the merch table at the end of the show. Flynn was also impressive, and many of the Marling fans in attendance also knew his music. Hackman and Flynn both joined in with Marling during her set. For the final song of the night — Marling did not come out for an encore — the band played Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” with Marling and Hackman trading off vocals.