Twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to watch Jeff Buckley perform solo on countless occasions. I knew he was great–I still remember the goose bumps I felt watching him perform. I couldn’t understand how it was physically possible for people to play one rhythm on their guitar, sing an entirely different vocal melody, and still manage to tap out a simultaneous beat with their feet. It was almost as if Buckley’s mind was able to separate his head, hands and feet into three separate parts that were somehow magically reconnected during his performance.
But I didn’t really appreciate it at that time, unable to comprehend the weight of what was happening–perhaps due to age, or because I had too many preconceived ideas of what greatness truly was. Was it only real after the masses had deemed it so? Did I just not feel confident enough to trust my own instincts? Or was I simply getting goose bumps because I was simply getting goose bumps?
I’ve seen roughly a thousand shows since that time. And I can also say that many of them were absolutely amazing–very memorable. But I can count on my fingers the number of times my jaw hit the floor and the goose bumps occurred. Jack White’s free show on the Hudson River somewhere around the time of White Blood Cells, Elliott Smith at Town Hall, Radiohead on some island in New Jersey a week before 9/11, and Bill Callahan a couple years ago in Park Slope. Something was different about those performances. Time stood still. It was as if I was invited to witness a special moment to which nobody else was privy.
Last week it happened again, with Laura Marling. Marling, nominated for the Mercury Prize twice already at the ripe old age of 23 (she received her third nomination recently) follows the beat of her own drum and refuses to release records that can easily be consumed by the masses. The musician played three sold-out shows in New York City, and I caught two of them–an intimate set at a church in Brooklyn and one of the two sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg shows.
Marling has gravitas, integrity, intelligence, God-given talent and a droll self-mocking humor. She’s the type of girl you’d want to sit down at the bar with and talk to until the sun comes up. She’s fascinating. From the moment she opened her mouth to start the show with a 15-minute suite of the first four songs from her latest record Once I Was an Eagle, the entire crowd was enthralled, eyes glued to her performance.
Accompanied by only her acoustic guitar and voice, the opening moment was transcendent and could have gone on forever. Afterward, she could pretty much do whatever she wanted–her presence was that commanding. Marling performed two new songs, an Allman Brothers cover, a few songs from her last record and also “Master Hunter” and “Where Can I Go” from her latest.[youtube http://youtu.be/fO2gm29rI7E]
As impressive as her guitar technique and vocal range are, what really grabbed the audience was her interpretations of her songs. She is so in-the-moment with her vocal delivery, bringing new meaning to every lyric, presenting every song in a new way. That said, she is human and the pressure of the live radio show (WFUV) that was happening in conjunction with the event did have an effect on her performance. She was still great but the recorded performance didn’t have the same freedom and fluidity of her Sunday show at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Fans can listen to the recording again on WFUV September 30, but it is not recommended–solely for the fact that one must see Laura Marling play live.