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Sunday, 9 March 2008

Laura Marling & friends at the Union Chapel

"There's a point in the gig every night where Laura has to change guitars," says the drummer apologetically, "And I have to talk."

The audience laughs. We don't mind waiting for Laura Marling, the 18-year-old whose voice is jaw-droppingly elastic, like treacle, to change from one acoustic guitar to another. Neither do we mind sharing the good-natured camaraderie that her band Mumford and Sons, gently surround her with, like protective big brothers.

The Union Chapel on Upper Street is full yet quiet on Thursday night; quiet with expectation and appropriately enough, a kind of reverence. Almost everyone is here because they bought Marling's Songbox, with the unusual consequence that almost everyone has come alone. The Songbox was the only way to get a ticket - no sales on the door - and as some fans complained, that meant unless you bought twice, chances were you wouldn't be able to take along your friend/lover/gig-buddy.

But at least the enforced solitary attendance has the effect of making everyone far chattier than they might normally be in a London venue; standing in the queue I discuss Marling's album with no less than four people whom I've never met before; as we file into the Union Chapel's wooden pews, hesitant introductions are made: "Hi, would you mind if I sit here?... Have you come far?... What do you do?" For a moment it feels more like speed-dating than a concert.

The venue itself is warm and welcoming like churches should be, dark except for a couple of panels of coloured spotlights that prettify the stage, and the streetlights outside that illuminate the rose window. At the back of the church they're selling cups of tea for £1 and my new friend Orlando buys a hot chicken pie from the bar between acts.

The cosy feel is nurtured by Marling's support acts, including the charming band that later accompany her, Mumford and Sons, and Vertigo-signed Johnny Flynn (watch the yummy faux-antique video for his single Leftovers). Both acts are what people call 'alt-folk', though how this differs from traditional folk I'm not exactly sure, except that maybe it sounds a bit more cool and it looks a lot younger.

Mumford and Sons, four floppy-haired boys in tweed waistcoats and open-necked white shirts that make them look like minstrels or agricultural-workers, are very talented and ridiculously endearing. At one point their lead singer prefaces a song bashfully (and entirely needlessly): "This is a new song, and it's a bit rough so please bear with us". His singing voice is rasping yet somehow still melodic; the other band-members offer harmony lustily.

Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit wear their folk-ancestry more fully, and so they should, with Vaughan Williams noted as one of their influences. Flynn himself, tousle-haired and dressed-down in his signature lumberjack shirt, has an unshowy but compelling stage presence, apparently at least partly thanks to Stanislavski. I can't stop humming his "Brown Trout Blues", which you should be able to listen to here, seeqpod permitting (listen out for a reworking of a classic tammy wynette lyric):

It's rare that the support acts are so good that you almost forget they're meant to be filler before the main event. When Laura comes on in a white shapeless smock, skin so pale it's almost see-through, her head is bowed and her voice is a bit shaky. "It's very nice to see you all here..." she murmurs, visibly nervous, "Thanks very much for buying the songbox."

A few lines into her first verse and she starts to relax, and meanwhile everyone else is almost holding their breath because her voice is so incredibly liquid and artless and both fragile and strong at once. Even Orlando, who said he was disappointed with the album when it first arrived, is won over.

She looks like a pale, cropped-haired elf, or a small child. Yet her lyrics are far from childish. In "My Manic & I" she treats mental illness with a personal insight that belies her youth: "He greets me with kisses when good days deceive him and sometimes with scorn, and sometimes I believe him". She's also got a dark sense of humour: "Cross your fingers, hold your toes, we're all going to die when the building blows," she croons merrily. The melancholic "Night Terrors", sits well in the shadowy church, with Marling using her voice like a finely tuned instrument, varying emphasis and volume seemingly effortlessly to intone subtle shifts of register.

All too soon it is the end. No-one wants her to stop, and there are two encores after extended applause. We step out into the chill March air and I feel buoyed up by the power of live music when it's this good. Folk is back and it's very young. Long live folk.

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