Tuesday, September 27th, 2011
A Creature I Don't Know
Laura Marling and Alessi’s Ark at The Great Hall in Toronto
Frank YangSomeday, I don’t know when, but someday, Laura Marling will come to Toronto and play an appropriately-sized venue at a decent point in an album’s promotional cycle. She was already a Mercury Prize shortlister for her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim when she made her local debut at the barely 200-capacity Rivoli in October 2008, and her return engagement in February 2009 was originally booked into the barely-bigger Drake Underground before being sensibly moved to the 500-person Lee’s Palace where it still sold right out. Coming as it did more than a month before her second album I Speak Because I Can – which would again shortlist for the Mercury Prize – was released, it was reasonable to assume that she’d make a return engagement but the closest she came was an appearance at Hillside in Guelph that Summer.
Which leads up to last Friday night, where she made her third local appearance with a show at The Great Hall just a fortnight after the release of album number three, A Creature I Don’t Know. The show was completely sold out, unsurprising considering how high her star has risen and how small the room is; official capacity is no more than 500, and considering the seated balcony was closed off, it was probably even less. Of course, cramming extra people in probably would have been dangerous – not because of any kind if fire hazard but because for its architectural and acoustic qualities, The Great Hall has nothing resembling a working ventilation system and the room was a veritable sauna and more than a few of the less-hardy punters were passing out and needing assistance before the show even began.
Any opener trying to get the attention of the distracted, sweaty masses would have their work cut out for them but Alessi’s Ark was in extra tough. Her latest album Time Travel is a pleasant bit of folk-pop that might have gone over better in quieter environs but in this setting, even backed with an electric guitarist adding a bit of texture, her strummy, languid stylings weren’t nearly forceful enough to grab most peoples’ attention. A couple of numbers where she went to more soulful places cut through a little better, and people definitely paid attention for the one song where she was joined by a cellist and Marling on backing vocals, but largely she was too easily drowned out. It’s odd that someone who’s no stranger to live performance would come across so timidly and frustrating that while she clearly has the talent to do more than she does, doesn’t.
It’s funny that so much discussion around Laura Marling centers around her tender age – still just 21 years old and already on her third critically-acclaimed album – when so much of her appeal comes from the agelessness of her songs. Okay, they’re not completely removed from temporal reference – ’60s and ’70s folk from both sides of the Atlantic figures heavily in her sound and you can tell that prior to writing the new album she’d been spending time with old-school American country records – but combined with her old soul vocals, that’s as close to timeless as you’re going to get. As for the Black Sabbath t-shirt she was sporting when she took the stage… well who doesn’t like a little “Iron Man” now and again?
Playing frontwoman for a six-piece band, she opened with a quartet of older numbers, perhaps cognizant of the fact that Creature was still very new and judging from the number of people clutching vinyl copies (and fanning themselves furiously with them) still unfamiliar to many. It wouldn’t be unfamiliar for much longer, though, as the rest of the set drew heavily from the new record and even included an even newer song – being called “Pray For Me” around the interwebs – when she played solo mid-set. As always, her performance was mesmerizing with this backing band arguably the best she’s had yet – yes, even better than Mumford & Sons – and the richness of the presentation superb; lead Creature single “Sophia” was glorious in its build from winsome to widescreen and the choral vocals on “I Speak Because I Can” were spine-chilling.
Especially pleasing was Marling’s stage presence; back in the day she was shy to the point of catatonia but has gotten progressively more confident as she gains years and experience and while she still apologized for having poor stage banter, she actually evidenced a sharp, dry wit and even effectively targeted and shamed some of the loud talkers by dropping her voice to a whisper mid-song and making their presence very acutely – and embarrassingly – known. But those few aside, most were held rapt by her 70-minute performance which was no mean feat given the stifling atmosphere in the hall. As always, things ended with the “we don’t know if you’ll give us an encore so we’re just going to stay and play our last song” routine which for this evening was a foot-stomping “All My Rage”; of course it was all part of the script, but it was also part of the fun. There wasn’t any way they weren’t getting their encore and there’s definitely the demand to bring Marling and co. back again for another show – but this time if it can’t be in a room that will hold all her fans, can it at least be one with climate control?
Photos: Laura Marling, Alessi’s Ark @ The Great Hall – September 23, 2011
MP3: Laura Marling – “Ghosts”
MP3: Alessi’s Ark – “The Robot”
Video: Laura Marling – “Sophia”
Video: Laura Marling – “The Needle & The Damage Done”
Video: Laura Marling – “Rambling Man”
Video: Laura Marling – “Devil’s Spoke”
Video: Laura Marling – “Night Terror”
Video: Laura Marling – “New Romantic”
Video: Laura Marling – “Ghosts”
Video: Laura Marling – “My Manic & I”
Video: Laura Marling – “Cross Your Fingers”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “On The Plains”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “Maybe I Know”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “The Wire”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “The Horse”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “Birdsong”
Video: Alessi’s Ark – “The Asteroids Collide”
Video: Bjork – “Moon”
NPR talks to Dominique Durand of Ivy while Magnet has a Q&A with her and Andy Chase in advance of making the band guest editors of their website this week; they’ve also got a new MP3 from their album All Hours to share.
Video: tUnE-yArDs – “Gangsta”
DIY, Billboard and Pitchfork all have features on Dum Dum Girls on the occasion of the release of Only In Dreams. There’s also a new video from said record. Dum Dum Girls are at Lee’s Palace on October 16.