Martha Marlow @ Elisabeth Murdoch Hall

I had a very lovely evening at the Melbourne Recital Centre, listening to one of my favourite records from last year played live with a 17-piece chamber orchestra.

I’ve been to a few gigs presenting an album in its entirety, however traditionally they’re reserved for well-established artists and bands performing their classic album or at least an album that represents some sort of important milestone in their career. This is not to take anything away from Martha Marlow’s Medicine Man, which is as sublime and accomplished as you’d wish for your first record to be, but still, it’s unusual to see this kind of show dedicated to a debut from a fledgling artist.

The supporting act was another unusual first – Luke Howard, a solo pianist performing his own original compositions, mostly sombre and moody but quite beautiful. I can take or leave most warm-up acts, but I felt that he managed to set up the mood for the main show really well and I’m glad that I arrived in time to catch his set. A funny moment happened when, during his charmingly rambling introduction, Howard forgot to actually introduce himself, which prompted a random yell out from the audience asking what his name was.

After a brief intermission, the stage was slowly filled by the members of the orchestra, who took their seats and waited for the lights to go down and for the lady of the hour to take her place. Martha was an angelic vision, with long fair hair and a simple white satin dress inviting all sorts of associations, from Christian baptism to the hospital gown (I thought of the latter mainly because of her personal history, spending months in a hospital because of a rare illness). She was lovely and very soft-spoken, with a strong sense of vulnerability that comes through in her recorded music and even more so in person.

It was a shorter concert than what I’d normally expect, but Martha made it rather more special by giving almost every song its own introduction and talking about things that influenced them – primarily poetry by Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson. She even recited some of these poems from memory, and spoke movingly about how important art is to her and how it provides an escape during hard times. While introducing Ballad of a Young Man, Martha mentioned that sometimes she likes to write songs from a perspective of a man and that she doesn’t think that artists should be constrained in that regard. It’s hard to pick a favourite from the night, but I probably enjoyed the bluesy Rain Man the most.

All in all it was an intimate and exquisite evening, with beautiful performances from Martha and the orchestra – which as we found out later included her own musician father on a double bass. She’s a wonderful new talent and I really look forward to what she does next.

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