Live music is something which breaks down barriers, giving fans the opportunity to celebrate the music of an artist they love. At their best, concerts provide moments of connection, where the opening chords of a song or a wailing vocal lead create a shared thrill within a crowd, amplifying the music’s effect. The nature of the Covid-19 crisis means that such moments of intimacy will be few and far between for the foreseeable future.
Yet for artists, touring and live shows make up a sizeable share of their livelihoods, and so they are forced into creative solutions to fill the gap. Livestreaming has become commonplace, with artists as varied as Travis Scott and Kacey Musgraves holding online events, not only to make money but to recreate the authenticity of a concert for fans.
Watching Laura Marling at Union Chapel was an experience at once revelatory and unsettling. There was no attempt to gloss over the loss of a physical audience or to create a pallid imitation of one. Seeing her perform in front of rows of empty pews, illuminated by the lit candelabra behind her and the light streaming in through the chapel windows, Marling cut a gorgeously isolated figure.
With the focus unremittingly on her, Marling’s idiosyncratic approach to a live stream was a resounding success
Director Giorgio Testi began by gently panning around Marling in a circular fashion with his camera, where we got to see the artist up close, admiring the physicality of her guitar playing, admiring how she fashioned the musical fabric of each song. The opening included a trio of songs from her 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle, the highlight being the suite’s final track ‘Breathe’. Marling’s expansive playing punctuated a softly spoken yet impassioned vocal performance singing “throwing fists against the wall/screaming at the earth for what/it’s done to one and all”. It’s a lyric with a disorienting relevance for us now, as we face our newly circumscribed conditions, wondering what we’ve done to the planet, what in turn it has inflicted upon us.
The opening suite contributes to the general air of melancholy that pervades the set, yet it doesn’t hang heavy in the air. Instead, Marling’s voice, light and ethereal, paired with her exemplary songwriting, manages to be both uplifting and unbearably sad. Her performance of ‘Song for Our Daughter’ from her latest album is a case in point, where we get to immerse ourselves in the intimacy of her singing while being warmed with hope for the future. She weaves a story of innocence lost and advice given while hoping her words “will outlive the dead”, a lyric that can be seen in a new light – as a reminder that things endure, and present difficulties are only temporary.
Mannered and cultivated yet bristling with an intense emotionality
Testi’s camera frequently focuses on the singer’s face throughout the performance, and it adds a different dimension to the usual concert experience. Marling adopts a relatively stoic expression while she sings these arrestingly emotional songs, yet Testi’s unwavering camera remains alive to the flickers of feeling in her eyes. It captures the slight twinges in her facial expressions, the movement of her lips and the flare of her nostrils, which in some ways mirror the songs themselves: mannered and cultivated yet bristling with an intense emotionality.
This is nowhere truer than on the shockingly romantic ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’. Marling vividly paints a scene that is stunning in its loveliness, gently singing “You were so smart then/in your jacket and coat/ my softest red scarf was warming your throat”. With nothing but her own acoustic backing and Testi’s perceptive camerawork picking up on how the light of the chapel catches her hair, I confess to having been completely taken in.
The highlight of the set for me came during her performance of ‘Held Down’. A favourite of mine from her new album Song For Our Daughter, it was an excellent emotional climax to the live stream. The camera briefly follows her fingering of the guitar before focusing on her, resplendent in the light and in her stoicism. Again, Marling provided us with another lingering image in the lyrics, “get lost in the crowd/seen or unseen/ say what you mean”. With the focus unremittingly on her, Marling’s idiosyncratic approach to a live stream was a resounding success.