By the time I arrived at the Fillmore on the night of Sunday, April 30, I was not in the most ideal headspace to absorb live music. Thirty minutes prior, I had woken from what was supposed to be an afternoon cat nap but turned out to be a drool-heavy, five-hour konk-out. Upon realizing that I was sprawled across my mattress in my underwear when I should have been at Will Call, I catapulted myself out of bed fast enough to break a land speed record or two, grabbed the nearest shirt on my floor, sprinted out my front door, and chased down the next 38 Geary bus.
It is on said bus that I realized I could’ve made a better wardrobe decision. It’s not that I looked terribly unfashionable, only that the shirt in question smelled ripe. (That I was already a member of The Great Unwashed, having lazed around all day, wasn’t helping things.) I sat in the back, slapped my cheeks and pulled at the skin on my eyelids because someone somewhere told me once that doing so helped with post-nap puffiness. These efforts were probably all in vain, but I did it anyways. I watched the clock on my phone, wondering if I could dodge being held accountable for my lateness by invoking Mercury retrograde.
I arrived in time to catch the tail end of opener Valley Queen’s set. After they left the stage, I staved off the gloom of the sound man’s all-Leonard-Cohen-playlist with a chocolate chip cookie, surveying the not-quite-sellout crowd. I figured I was on the younger side of the median age, and by the time I heard a man regaling his companion with a story of how he dropped acid recently for the first time in 21 years, I was absolutely sure this was an older-ish crowd. Ah, youth.
Thankfully, Laura Marling was in much better shape than I. She arrived on stage wearing a ruffled black dress and gold hoop earrings, accompanied by a five-piece band, that included a drummer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist tasked with a bass guitar and a gorgeous double bass, and two backup singers who were sisters. Bouquets filled with white blossoms and thick dark green leaves were nestled between speakers and draped over microphone stands, spilling over the ledge into the photo pit below. (Were Morrissey ever to experience a Laura Marling stage setup, I think he would be proud.) Behind the group, several long white banners depicting symbols from the artwork in Semper Femina, Marling’s sixth and most recent album, hung from the ceiling.
Marling began with several cuts from Semper Femina: the taut album highlight “Soothing” first, with mellower cuts “Wild Fire” and “The Valley” next. It was a gentle start greeted with enthusiastic applause typically reserved for wilder rock groups. She kept the banter to a minimum, praising Valley Queen briefly before showing off her staggering guitar talent with an excellent rendition “Don’t Pass Me By.”
As enjoyable as the opening cuts from Semper Femina sounded – Marling’s clear voice shone especially bright amid the soulful blues of “Nothing, Not Nearly” – she didn’t quite hit her stride until the band left their respective posts seven songs in. Alone onstage and shrouded in blue light, she took a moment to observe her Bay Area devotees.
“I’m going to play a long, old song, so if you’re ready for that than stick around,” Marling said over a few excited whoops.
She then launched into the four-song suite that opens 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle. Its opening moments were greeted with thunderous applause, and justifiably so. Bathed in gold light, Marling transfixed her audience with the stunning fullness of her live sound. The crowd applauded for a good 30 seconds after she finished.
For what it’s worth, being one of the best singer-songwriters today hasn’t totally gone to Marling’s head. Following an energetic rendition of “Sophia” from 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling paused the show for a winking segment she called “Band Facts,” in which backing band members were charged with entertaining the audience with a fun fact or story. Drummer Matt Ingram chose to recount a vivid dream in which he was visited by Jimi Hendrix atop a white stallion. Marling responded by calling it a “Freudian wet dream.”
By the second half of the show, Marling was more comfortable, witty, and effortlessly engaging, cracking up at her own mistake when she sang the wrong line during “Sophia.”
In a sense, Marling is the perfect combination: a songwriting and guitar goddess who seems so gosh darn relatable that it’s deceptively easy to forget she has been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize three times in the last decade. At 27, she’s well on her way to becoming a master of her craft – I could probably make the case that she already is – but, as she proved Sunday night at the Fillmore, she’s not a total dick about it. Seriously, what more could you ask for?