Perhaps the old adage is true. Maybe blondes really do have more fun, if Laura Marling’s recent Custom House Square gig is anything to go by, anyway. A former Quaker schoolgirl, Marling’s fledgling concerts marked her as an undoubtedly talented, but almost cripplingly shy performer. Three years and two (Mercury Music Prize nominated) albums later, nothing could be further from the case – these days, the Hampstead singer oozes calm and charisma, a figure of tranquillity onstage. Gone are the demure brunette locks which accompanied Marling on her ‘I Speak Because I Can Tour’, in their place – a blonde barnet, and a new-found sense of frivolity.

The opening ‘Alpha Shallows’ marks our first exposure to this new confidence, yet there’s a dichotomy to be found between the strength of Marling’s delivery, and the underlying vulnerability hinted at by lyrics such as ‘You’ll work your thumbs ‘till they’re sore, and you’ll work my heart until it’s raw’. The following ‘Rambling Man’ (written, as she later reveals, in a Belfast hotel room), further emphasises the metamorphosis of her talent, along with an arresting flair for introspection :"It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire, as someone you don’ want to be," she sings, with a disarming vigour.

Older material is given an airing, too. On the sprightly sing-a-long ‘Failure’, it’s not hard to imagine Marling as this generation’s answer to Joni Mitchell, yet the gig’s backdrop is a million miles away from the sun-drenched idylls Mitchell sang about, as the entire concert is offset by a torrential downpour. Something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the girl onstage – whether she’s mumbling a quiet apology about the weather conditions or invoking everyone to go home and have a nice warm bath, her charming modesty is a refreshing change from the perception of most successful musicians as being filled with bravado.

Whetting the crowd’s appetite for her new album with a medley of the liltingly poignant ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘Salinas’, a beautifully unfolding epic, Marling confirms her ability to imbue such songs with both pathos and a creeping sense of dark humour.

In an era where lazy journalism has led to such terms as ‘genius’ and ‘visionary’ being bandied about in lieu of more searching appraisals of an artist’s performance, it’s easy to become desensitised to such hyperbole. Yet in Marling’s case, such terms are nothing more than the truth – at twenty one years of age, she speaks with an astounding maturity that eludes most performers twice her age.

As she retires from the stage, one can’t help but feel a little better about the state of modern music. For the ten-a-penny chanteuses that fill the charts, the gimmicks that marketing executives pedal to plug a gap where genuine ability should be, for all the autotuning in the world, it’s reassuring to realise that these isles are still capable of producing musicians of inimitable quality. A bright young prospect whose talent is only exceeded by her endearing modesty, Marling has already achieved a great deal in a short space of time, yet looks set to scale even giddier heights.

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Commenting On: Custom House Square, Belfast, 24/7/2011 - Laura Marling

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