Photo by Prudence Upton.
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 12
Two years ago, when last she played in this city, the review of Laura Marling’s mesmerising show ended with “And you are not even at the peak of your powers yet. There will be even better nights than this to come.”
In many ways, though not unequivocally (more of that in a minute), that prediction was made to look like a statement of the bleeding obvious by another captivating, complicated and inspiring night.
It was a night where the continued broadening and deepening of her singing floored us from the first notes.
On a practical level, that voice has greater firmness in the upper register, undeniable power in its lower register, and in the middle maintains total control in its variations and explorations.
On an emotional level, it felt rich and detailed, its nuances – a shift in tone here, a quickening of notes there, a thickening of meaning without noticeable adjustment - felt before they were understood.
It’s a cliché to talk about storytellers in songwriting: that is part of the job description in most cases after all. And it is no less hackneyed to wax lyrical about singing which does that storytelling at a level above/beyond words: that too being the point of singing in the end.
But it is still something of wonder to hear a storyteller with such mastery of tone and temper, word and imagery, who can command a room without recourse to domination, who can tell you everything you need to know while saying almost nothing through the show, and who can lift you with her as she rises.
It’s worth noting too that this command came not solo, except for a four-song bracket mid-gig which was delightful, intimate, highlighted her superb guitar playing and a reminder that a one-woman show would be a great small theatre night on a future tour.
Instead it was mostly in the centre of a band (guitars, various basses, drums, most of them singing at some point) and two backing vocalists (Emma and Tamsin Topolski), whose combination was full in both volume and occupation of space.
While the sound sometimes didn’t do justice to the band (the drums began too loud and too sharp; the electric guitar sometimes was too soft) the addition of the Topolski sisters made for some stunning moments of choral power as well as giving the full Fleetwood Mac to Daisy, a b-side from 2015 which has become a live staple and luxuriates in its evocation of “golden age” Christine McVie.
As is Marling’s way, the set list was weighted towards, and guided from the start by a large chunk of, her most recent album, Semper Femina.
Songs such as the liquid Wild Fire, the winding, hypnotic The Valley (early) and the gently prickly Wild Once (later) more than justifying this balance alongside the longtime folk/pop beauty of Goodbye England and the regular show closer of the folk/rock gem, Rambling Man.
Not everyone saw that record’s opening song, the languidly sensual Soothing, as the best show opener, but for me it immediately established a level of physical and intellectual exploration, of command and control, which came to define the night.
Another “better” night. But not the best. Not yet.
After all, you’d be foolish to limit your expectations of Laura Marling.