Refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room has required all of this year’s Meltdown festival shows to be held in the grander surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall. It has resulted in more consolidated festival, with more in the way of artists suited to the bigger venue and tonight saw arguably the biggest name on the line up, Laura Marling, help bring the festival to a close.
Marika Hackman provides apt support with her set of both old and new songs projecting a quiet allure, if not having quite the immediacy of tonight’s headliner. There’s a humility and sweetness to songs like Cinnamon and Next Year that suggest Hackman could follow quite closely in Marling’s footsteps.
Marling has recently completed a string of support slots opening for Neil Young and it’s already possible to draw parallels between heritage folk acts like Young and her own highly polished, contemporary songcraft. The early stages of her set show how adept she’s become at creating bare, minimally delineated songs. Rambling Man, How Can I and Daisy all contain scattered, dispersed guitar, the latter recalling the music of Judee Sill. Her minimalism hits something of a peak later on new song Don’t Pass Me By. She sheds her band early on for What He Wrote, imbuing it with tangible authority while I Feel Your Love also impresses with its skipping guitar line.
A string trio accompany her early on with mixed results. On the climbing, restrained Take The Night Off the contribution feels little more than cosmetic but on Breathe they add something more substantial. Covers of Courting Blues by Bert Jansch and Waitin’ Around To Die by Townes Van Zandt show off her alt-county/alt-folk credentials, yet there’s undoubtedly something very modern and 2010s about her, even if on occasion there’s an over-cleanliness to some of her set.
Her succession of acclaimed albums continues to attract attention, specifically her ability to pluck out melodies and draw them out in interesting and engaging ways. She recently spoke about not staying in the same place for more than three weeks since she was 17 – it’s tempting to partially attribute the freshness and quality of her songwriting to this peripatetic lifestyle (as well as prompting further comparisons to Hejira-era Joni Mitchell).
The only real negative tonight is that her set doesn’t completely reflect the breadth and variety found on her albums. So often her songs will go beyond what is strictly necessary and boast arrangements that set her apart but tonight these songs don’t feature, which make the show slightly more one-paced than it could have been. I Speak Because I Can expertly balances acoustic heft and personal vulnerability and closing track Sophia gives a tantalising glimpse of how she can generate momentum and turn songs on their heads. A few more of these would have made it a truly memorable show but the reaction from an adoring crowd at the end proved that tonight couldn’t be seen as anything else but a success.