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“I've been here for two hours,” a smiling redhead confesses at the door of the Star of Bethnal Green. Inside, the tiny pub is brimming with the well-coiffed and music-savy. The doorman is arguing with the Scruffy Bird promoter, trying to get him to stop letting people in as the venue reached capacity some time ago. There is a queue of pretty indie kids that winds its way down the street for half a mile. Which is why the redhead is smiling: she's made it to the front; she might just get in.
The reason for such commotion? One diminutive eighteen-year old by the name of Laura Marling. With her pale elfin featues and boyish white-blonde crop, Marling has a voice that defies contemporary comparison and a strength of principle and direction that has revived the underground folk scene's anti-commercial, music-concentric resolve.
Just over a year ago, in a performance on Jools Holland, Laura was a rabbit in headlights: her blue eyes never left the ground, her fingers trembled through delicate bedroom compositions. The ethereal creature before us this evening, make-up-less as ever and shrouded in a large, nondescript shirt, has evolved from that early terror, garnering a steady, steely confidence over the course of two years of hard graft and steady gigging. Marling weaves her way through the crowd to take to the stage, she smiles, she chats amiably with her hushed and waiting audience, and finally, she sings.
She is without her Mumford and Sons backing band tonight, and with the absence of musical support her songs - the earlier love-forlorn acoustic tracks and the more recent, fiddle-featuring folk-tales - are stripped of complications, sounding all the better for it, especially is such an intimate environment. 'Ghosts' and 'My Manic And I' are interspersed with a b-side, 'Blackberry Stone'. The latter, one of Marling's finest songs and rarely heard save from live, smoulders with a rhythmic and melodic ire that echos in the dim confines of the pub. The earlier part of the set is interrupted slightly by the sound technician fiddling with the levels, but in many ways this just adds to the personal feel of the gig, as tiny smiles and giggles slip through Marling's usual cold, fixated stage persona.
We are treated to some new material, two new songs to be precise. “It's terribly self indulgent to play new songs,” Marling apologises, before adding lightly, “so I will.” The first, 'Rambling Man', showcases a melodic line and vocal agility of uniqueness that strikes of Joni Mitchell. There are but glimpses of facile lyrics at moments in the new, unpolished tracks that remind how young Marling still is. The audience is awe-struck and respectfully still, until the 'Crawled Out Of The Sea' interlude, where an irrepresible sing-a-long begins accidentally, endorsed by a glimmer of a smile from onstage. "I wish more people would do that," Marling murmurs afterwards. "No one does that anymore: this is what music is all about." And as her voice winds its way through to the melodic reaches of her handstitched, humble folk songs, we can't help but agree.