Raucous gigs in sticky-floored academies have become something of a routine for me. As has singing and dancing along to my favourite bands in the middle of a field throughout summer festivals. I have been to plenty of glittering pop concerts in huge arenas in my time too. But sitting quietly in a Symphony Hall to enjoy some live music – that’s not something I’m used to.
Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is an exquisite venue – grand in scale and yet with an immediate feeling of intimacy somehow – and the tiered seating means that seeing the artist on stage is no problem. This is a real novelty for someone like me, who hasn’t quite reached the heights of 5ft.
Best of all, the venue boasts some incredible acoustics, and tonight Laura Marling is playing alone with only her acoustic guitar to accompany her so the set-up is absolutely perfect.
Supporting Laura tonight is ex Portico Quartet member and now solo singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey. Speaking to him before the event he says: “In a Symphony Hall there’s nothing that can impede the music reaching the ears so it’s very focused.”
He’s not wrong; every cough, sneeze and stir is heard around the room. No bar chat-chat at this gig. Which is just as well, as otherwise his intricate melodies and smooth, Willy Mason-esque vocals might have gotten lost in the noise.
Polite claps follow his first song, and I catch a whisper behind me: “he’s a masterful guitar player, isn’t he?” He undoubtedly is. I wonder whether he might be using a loop pedal as these complex textures from one man and his acoustic guitar almost seem too good to be true. It’s really quite impressive, and all delivered with an effortless cool.
All the while, everyone is listening intently, and his latest single Nitrous goes down especially well. There is a pleasing look of pure enjoyment on his face as he plays, which makes for the best kind of stage presence, as it’s totally infectious. The track samples 1996 dance hit You’re Not Alone by Olive- “an old rave classic” smiles Mulvey – perhaps revealing the secret to his distinctive sound – drawing in surprising influences to his acoustic set.
The audience are captivated throughout by his easy-going charm and there is a real warmth to his songs - the title track from his EP Fever to the Form is a particular treat to the ears. As he closes his set, the polite clapping from earlier turns into wooping and standing ovations as he proves to be the perfect opening act to Laura Marling.
The first time I saw Laura Marling live was with a full backing band at Glastonbury in 2008 – and she was endearingly shy. Mind you, hindsight quite startlingly reminds me that she was a mere 18 years old at the time. Tonight she is alone with her guitar, dressed in a classy maxi skirt and blouse– and has visibly grown in confidence over the years.
It’s still hard to believe however – with the rich weariness of her vocals, the maturity of her lyrical themes and the intensity of her musical talent that she is still only 23 years young.
Now with four albums worth of material to draw from, Marling delivers a set well-rounded in favourites from all four. She’s noticeably more comfortable with her audience that in the aforementioned gig years ago, as she delivers her brand of dry wit between songs. She’s very funny, and extremely likeable; a guitar string snaps at the end of a song: “It’s okay, I have a spare” she says picking up another guitar. “This used to be my number one guitar, and now when I pick it up it’s like a grumpy old man – it knows I traded it for a younger, hunkier model.” However, she’s no less intense when she’s playing, which is actually a relief of sorts, as her songs are so deeply poetic.
Ghosts, and Alas I Cannot Swim from the first album, are firm favourites with the audience and still sound astonishing years on from their original release. Whether crooning through gentle folk numbers like Rambling Man, or tearing through the edgier Master Hunter and Alpha Shadows– she sings every note with visceral emotion which goes far beyond her years.
Pleasingly, before her final song she states “I don’t do encores. So if you want an encore, just pretend that last song I played was the final song.” She plays Where Can I Go – from the new album and it sounds glorious. And with that, she thanks us, and walks off stage to rapturous applause – a classy ending to a thoroughly fine and sophisticated set.
Look out for a full interview and exclusive video sessions from Nick Mulvey on the site later in the week.
Were you at the gig too? Let us know in the comments below!