The talk after last night's (May 10) sold out Laura Marling show at the Danforth Music Hall was of its length and abrupt end. "I don't do encores," Marling reminded the crowd. "So if you want an encore that was the last song, and if you don't we will play you one more." The band then launched into "Rambling Man" from 2010's I Speak Because I Can, with Marling on a 12-string; it was indeed their final song.
It hardly would have mattered if the band had played for 45 minutes or twice as long (the set was a little over an hour); Marling's songs were riveting — almost like the outside world stopped. If that's the length she thinks the set should be, so be it.
Almost the antithesis of chatty (she waited until a number of songs in to even say "hello"), Marling wisely let her songs do most of the work — after all, they have a lot to say. Drawing heavily from her new album, Semper Femina, which means "always a woman" (it's actually tattooed on Marling's thigh), Marling and an incredible five-piece band played nearly the whole record in the first half of the set.
Coming on after openers Valley Queen — a Tom Petty/Crazy Horse-ish L.A. band who endeared themselves to their Canadian audience with a faithful cover of Destroyer's "Painter in Your Pocket" — Marling's set revealed itself to be even more jaw-dropping in contrast. Whereas Valley Queen brandished the raw power of wailing guitars in tandem with wailing vocals (care of lead singer Natalie Carol), Marling and her band achieved a sound infinitely more nuanced and quietly complex — almost like Marling backed by Timber Timbre.
After 2015's slightly rock-ish Short Movie, Semper Femina feels like a departure — a moody, textured, contemplative and deeply personal one. The album explores intimate relationships, but this time, as if taking a cue from Toronto's Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station), the relationships Marling is exploring are mostly about and between women (this also ties in to Marling's recent "Reversal of the Muse" podcast). After becoming so accustomed to hearing (mostly heterosexual) love songs, the psychological untangling of woman-woman friendships can be revelatory: the unspoken feelings surrounding friends that don't call when they're in town ("The Valley"), for example, or the Dylan-ish talking blues of set standout "Wild Fire." ("I think your mama's kinda sad and your papa's kinda mean," Marling sings. "I can take that all away and you can stop playing it all out on me.")
On the record, these songs sound baroquely experimental — lots of strings and electronic tweaks and textures — but live, Semper Femina crystallized into something arguably more powerful: with heavenly backup vocals from sisters Emma and Tamsin Topolski, who occupied the left side of a stage decorated by bouquets of flowers (it looked, from where I was standing, like Marling was growing out of the flowers) the performance felt almost like communion, giving the collection a country-soul/gospel folk feel that was truly amazing.
During a mid-show mini solo set, Marling brought out some older songs, which worked into the Semper Femina theme, even as they introduced the male perspective or relationships with men ("What He Wrote," from I Speak Because I Can, and a Townes Van Zandt cover, "For the Sake of the Song"). On "Wild Once," it almost felt like Marling was addressing the crowd when she sang, "you were wild once, don't forget it."
The Topolski sisters re-emerged for "Daisy," an outtake from 2015's Short Movie that, with its theme of a fiercely independent woman, made a lot of sense here, and the full band were back for "How Can I," a vulnerable emotional high-point off Short Movie, and crowd favourite "Sophia," (off 2011's A Creature I Don't Know) before taking a brief break for "Band Facts" (Marling's spoken word invention in which, yes, the band get to introduce themselves and tell jokes/facts). Over the course of such a deep and serious set, it was an effective foil that also showed Marling's humorous, generous side that, though couched in her lyrics, is not always so obvious in her poised stage manner.
On songs like the dusty "Always This Way" and the penultimate "Once" (off Once I Was An Eagle), Marling and her band hinted that they can do straight-up country when they want to. But as she sings in "Always This Way," Marling makes her own way, even if it is a lonely, ponderous, regretful one — and we love her for that.