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Music Review

Marling’s voice and songs ring true

Last here in October, Laura Marling sang an hourlong set. Last here in October, Laura Marling sang an hourlong set.
By James Reed
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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The word on Laura Marling — and it’s exceedingly good — is that this English singer-songwriter is wise beyond her years. She is, and all those comparisons to early Joni Mitchell aren’t for naught.

What you don’t hear about this 20-year-old musician is that she acts her age but happens to write about matters of the heart with a precocious and graceful honesty. It is not hyperbole to say Marling is already one of the most important voices of her generation, even if most people probably will never even know one of her songs.

Marling’s reverent fan base, however, hung on her every word at the First Church in Cambridge Congregational Wednesday night, a pit stop to promote her new sophomore album, “I Speak Because I Can.’’

As a preface to the clear-eyed confessional “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow),’’ Marling said she grew up in a village, moved to London at 16, but now that she has traveled all over the world, she misses her sleepy little hometown — just four years after leaving it. It was an imperious thing to say — I’m all grown up and worldly now — yet no one flinched, because Marling already feels like a fully formed artist, and a supremely confident one who’s in charge of her muse.

Backed half of the hourlong show by a band composed of her opening acts, Marling seemed most at ease alone with her acoustic guitars, which she swapped out routinely for various open tunings. She was just here in October at Club Passim, a visit Marling said she still remembers thanks to an “insane taxi driver’’ who spent 20 minutes explaining the difference between Boston and Cambridge.

Still, her growth as a performer — and, specifically, her comfort playing that role — was notable. She stared dead into the audience like a seasoned storyteller, stretched beyond her lower register with the occasional wail, and played fluid guitar lines just as expressive as her emotional delivery.

When the show opened with “Devil’s Spoke,’’ the most raucous track from her new album, her voice swelled to a fever pitch above the din of drums, bass, banjo, guitar, cello, and piano. A cover of “Blues Run the Game,’’ written by the unsung 1960s singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank, was right in her wheelhouse, too: a love song where the love in question is poetic and never saccharine.

Songs such as “Hope in the Air’’ and “What He Wrote’’ came off as delicate, but there was no denying the strength and optimism that simmered beneath the surface. The same went for “Rambling Man,’’ with a particular lyric that stood out as Marling’s artistic statement: “Let it always be known that I was who I am.’’

A bit more nebulous was the opening set from Smoke Fairies, the British duo of core members Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire, whose entwined harmonies soared beautifully in a sea of murky folk rock. Before that, Pete Roe delivered a moving performance of acoustic gems with guitar playing as strident as his singing was heartfelt.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

LAURA MARLING

With Smoke Fairies and Pete Roe

At: First Church in Cambridge Congregational, Wednesday