Laura Marling - The Glee Club, Birmingham
No surprise, in the wake of her Mercury nod, that Laura Marling's return to the Glee Club has merited 'sold out' status. Old and young, hip and not-so, the crowd is united in its anticipation for the girl causing the stir. Until then, two five-song sets from Laura's band member Pete Roe and friend Jay Jay Pistolet keep the buzz from waning. The former fits his old-school flat cap/waistcoat ensemble well during his acoustic session, while the latter's reverb vocals and sweet-natured love songs are as charming as the impossibly shy stage manner which wins the hearts of a few (very vocal) females - and perhaps even a few males - in the audience.Marling casts a similar spell when she takes to the stage alone for opener Shine. Armed only with acoustic guitar and a crystal-clear vocal, she follows with a solo rendition of Rebecca before the four male members of her band join her. It's a welcome move when drums, fiddle, bass and keys turn Ghosts into the first all-out crowd pleaser of the night - indeed, it's worth mentioning that the vocal harmonies they provide throughout the evening are simply gorgeous. They contribute to a run of Marling's more upbeat songs comprising of You're No God, Cross Your Fingers and Crawled Out of the Sea before leaving Marling alone once more so she can impress with some stripped-down new material. It travels the same weary roads as the cuts from her debut, with one ukelele-based song moving into archaic, Joanna Newsom freak-folk territory.It's an impressive start, comprising of more fresh material than expected and suggesting Marling has more than one awards-baiting album in her. However, it becomes clear she is saving her biggest emotional punch for a devastating last act; if the heart-on-sleeve output so far can be described as bruised, then the final stretch is positively bleeding. A full-band setup on My Manic and I really shouldn't work for what is such an intimate account on record, and yet it manages to kick me in the gut harder than ever. The playing is uniformly excellent - the drummer even swaps sticks for accordion - and yet what really lends the song its power is Marling's voice. Cracking in all the right places, it delivers the personal details of a harrowing relationship with the heartfelt regret of someone twice her age. When young X Factor contestant Diana Vickers is being championed as the most unique female voice of 2008, it's nice to know there are teenagers making an impression who can write and sing with true soul.Breaking up the moodiness before her big finish, Marling introduces a new 'Christmas song' that doesn't mention Christmas but rather acts as a love letter to winter, the lyrics painting a picture of a snowy England at the height of its beauty. Before we can all cosy up to its warm glow and start breaking out the mince pies, the sudden tonal shift of Night Terror takes us on a detour to hell instead. It's a song that relies on Marling to sound scared in order to evoke the necessary goosebumps, and she pulls it off with frightening precision, looking dead into the eyes of a rapt first few rows as she weaves her campfire tale. With a song as dark as this at her disposal, it's a relief when she displays her good humour prior by telling us she doesn't see the point of trying to pull the wool over our eyes with this encore nonsense and that, following 'last song' Night Terror, her and her band will remain onstage for the genuine last song. This happens to be a jolly, clap-along Alas I Cannot Swim, the light at the end of the tunnel for both Marling and the fans that have taken the journey with her. It's a good send-off but, as the crowd dissipates and heads toward the 'Exit' signs, Night Terror's uneasy primal power is what resounds and proves to be her most valuable currency.