Laura Marling: like watching a young woman bare her soul for her cat
Live: Laura Marling + Lucinda Black Bear
Friday January 18
Last week, Laura Marling played four shows. As far as young, possibly sappy, possibly brilliant, singer-songwriters go, the 17-year-old from Reading, UK is possibly one of the best to come through these parts in a long time. She’s awkward, like your little sister was when she was going through puberty. You look at her, and think she’s still so innocent, still so naïve, sitting there in her red Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with stringy blonde hair pulled back. She could be studying Spanish because there’s a big test tomorrow. Or bitching about her parents’ lame rules.
Alas, it’s none of that. Well, it’s a lot of those thoughts running through my head, because her youthful looks probably remind me of my own fleeting youth, as well as the rest of the NPR contributors in the audience. But Marling manages to lure you in because she never focuses on you, or anyone in the audience. She just stares downward at the floor, looking a bit cross-eyed, as she strums—while her male partner, a nice enough seeming lad, plays along, adding some soft drum rhythms and backing guitars.
Her voice sounds like Beth Orton’s—if that’s your thing, you’d love Marling. Her songs are sparse and simplistic the way Orton’s early material was, but Marling’s a bit darker. Her tune “Night Terror” describes protecting her boyfriend from those who are haunting her lover; so much so, she’s willing to put up a fight. Yet she feels a bit more disturbed in a Nick Drake way; a bit more soul-baring than I recall Orton’s Trailer Park-era ever being. She took a few crowd jabs in stride when she mentioned she’d be “checking out Williamsburg” the following day, which provided a rare smile and acknowledgment that there were people watching her. But mostly watching Marling feels like you’re spying on some young woman who’s baring her soul for her cat.
Headlining the evening was Lucinda Black Bear, a rock-noir outfit headed by C.Gibbs (a/k/a Christian Gibbs). Gibbs is neither awkward, nor young; in fact, he’s extremely confident in commanding this five piece he’s recently assembled, who’re bolstered by a cello and a violin. Gibbs has been around the game awhile; he flirted with a major label release in 1999, and has subsequently released two records this decade. He’s received accolades over the years from high end places such as the New York Times and NPR, but seemingly has failed to catch on with those most likely be his fans—those who appreciate Okkervil River or Magnolia Electric Company / Songs: Ohia.
Unlike Marling, Lucinda Black Bear sing songs about fighting bears. Well, just one song, really, involves a throwdown: “Fought The Bear” is a large sounding rocker, a full-on assault of Gibbs crowing and crescendo’ing about a quick brush with death, something that fits his band’s morose vibe. He passionately convinces us that this bear fight (with his bare hands) really happened, something that as we get older, we don’t even consider possible. There was a time, decades ago, that fighting bears seemed like a real possibility as did playing professional sports. Another one of the staples in Lucinda Black Bear’s catalog is “Kites,” a slow, twangy ballad that highlights Gibb’s abstract storytelling. It’s not a carefree kite flying song (although flying kites, is in fact, referenced) but instead comes off a bit bitter, a bit jaded, and dejected, as Gibbs describes coming to terms with losing a friend. Gibbs himself puts this into his performances, a downsized version of himself that the jaded and the heartbroken can appreciate—those with imagination, yet who were never rewarded for that quality.
Lucinda Black Bear might be just getting off the ground, and Gibbs has assembled a talented backing band. But his song arrangements (like on the album) would even lend themselves to a larger ensemble, maybe a piano here and there, and a banjo or mandolin would even sound appropriate—but for Union Hall’s tiny stage, a five piece was enough for the moment.