For a young person fresh out of school and craving energy-channeling structure and tradition, there are many options: Join the Army; get a grad degree in something useless; try a career in folk music. Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn are two wide-eyed English singer-songwriters who chose the latter. During a two-night stand at the Hotel Cafe over the weekend, they each updated the UK tradition of the pastoral balladeer by pairing involved acoustic arrangements with the self-awareness characteristic of their Twittering mates.
Their Saturday night sets opened with an impressive turn by the London quartet Mumford & Sons, who evoked the swooning harmonies of CSNY with the dreamy pluck of the Incredible String Band and Mumford's contemporaries Fleet Foxes.
Flynn's more mannered, boy-next-door approach to writing and scoring initially seemed a bit antiquated and polite by comparison. But once he and his backing band settled into his thickets of sentences and quiver of instruments (guitar, banjo, trumpet, fiddle), Flynn drew ready comparisons to such precociously adept peers as Patrick Wolf and Beirut's Zach Condon.
Flynn's songs are deeply invested in traditional folk imagery, all rife with religious doubt, Hoagy Carmichael allusions and domestic ritual (he has a whole tune about cooking leftover bacon and sardines). But in a few moments, in songs such as "Brown Trout Blues," he gives away his age and insecurities, admitting, "Sometimes I find it hard to be a man / It's easier just to play the same old game / Of trying to forget my bloody name." Be it through boozy benders or an identity crisis, the results are an apt portrait of a youth navigating and avoiding the expectations placed on him.