Marlon Williams Makes Way For Love In Wellington

At the opening night of his NZ tour, Marlon Williams gave an emotional and musically meandering performance at The Hunter Lounge in Wellington. Coming back after an overseas stint, the sold-out show was the first that Williams played in his home country since the release of his excellent sophomore album Make Way For Love. New fans of that album were certainly in for a treat.

First, Wellington’s own Julia Deans warmed up the crowd with a beautiful vocal performance – a precursor of what was to come. The ex-lead singer of Fur Patrol was accompanied only by a backing vocalist, who really added another sonic layer to her folky easy-listening compositions – though the highlight of her set was the opening moody Clandestine, for which she needed no backing. However, towards the end of her set, you could sense Deans’ frustration at the loud talkative crowd who refused to be won over by her lengthy attempts to introduce her new album, We Light Fire, from which she played many songs. A difficult situation for any opening act, but one which she didn’t let affect her fantastic vocals.

Photo credit: Ruby Wilkinson

This crowd was very notable for its diversity in terms of age – my guess would be that an age span of close to five decades was represented, showing Marlon Williams’ broad appeal and popularity. Moreover, this was the first of two consecutive sold-out nights at The Hunter Lounge, the deceivingly large standing bar venue in Victoria University. The crowd was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, a hot room on a cold night.

From the first lines of Come To Me, it was clear Williams was in just as good a voice as you could find on any of his studio recordings. The song, like several others from the Make Way For Love album, already feels like a classic, and was greeted as such by cheers from the crowd as the four piece backing band kicked into life. The backing vocal harmonies, supplied throughout the night by all four members of Williams’ ‘The Yarra Benders’, really elevated the track, blending beautifully with the lead vocals without obstructing them. This was made possible by a fantastic sound mix.

Williams’ moved to the piano for the stunningly sung Beautiful Dress was the early highlight of the night. The Yarra Benders, all excellent musicians, juggled drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, violin, saxophone and ocassional electronic drum tracks between them, making for a grandiose chamber-pop sound that for the most part stayed far-removed from the “country” label Williams’ first built his name around. In reflection of this, the 19-song setlist contained only 3 from his self-titled debut album (in contrast he played every track from his newest.) Of these the biggest cheers were reserved for fan-favourite Dark Child, which was drawn out into a lengthy Crazy Horse-esque jam, complete with guitar solos, while Williams left the stage. The band play brilliantly, but the jamming moments and long instrumental solos that reappeared several times throughout the night didn’t really fit Williams’ songs or add anything musically to the set. The crowd were there to hear him sing.

Heartbreak and romantic pain is of course the central theme of Make Way For Love, and the songwriter didn’t shy away from discussing it, regularly joking that we had more pain and heartbreak to stand through before we could get to the fun stuff. What’s Chasing You was introduced as a song about when you “just want to know the facts” about someone, and Can I Call You as a song about post-breakup jealousy – “we’re gonna turn on the green light now”. For the latter, Williams’ left the instruments to the backing band and worked the stage with mic in hand, crouching and glaring straight at the audience to deliver punchy interrogative lines like “What are you drinking/who’s there with you?”

Photo credit: Ruby Wilkinson

His voice was perfectly suited to the cover of Lhasa De Sela’s thematically fitting Is Anything Wrong – though less so to Yoko Ono’s equally thematically fitting but musically lesser Nobody Sees Me Like You Do, or Barry Gibb’s Carried Away. I imagine that fans of his first album would have liked to hear a few more tracks from it rather than so many covers. It’s really his singing in his original compositions where Williams’ excels as a conveyor of emotion, though particularly in the sparser tracks where all the inflections of his incredible rich delivery can be heard out front. Thankfully the crowd were less chatty and more respectful than in Julia Deans’ set – when there was a scattering of chatter over the sparse piano intro of I Didn’t Make A Plan it was instantly met with a volley of loud “shhhhhh”s. Almost every original track was met with happy recognition from the crowd, all but confirming my feelings that his newest album is something of an instant classic for New Zealand “folk” (in the broadest sense of the term). The emotional vulnerability both in the compositions and his on-stage presence command respect. It’s reaffirming to see the exposure and passionate fan base which artists like Williams, Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid (all Lyttleton songwriters) have achieved.

Following Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore, the duet which featured the bass player singing Aldous Harding’s chorus part, they closed with the title track from Make Way For Love. This was one of the many songs that night that showed that, rather than country, Williams’ main musical calling and influence is classic vintage pop, and at it’s most satisfyingly melodic too.

For the encore, Williams’ returned to the piano alone for the most emotional performance of the night – a pained and beautiful rendition of Love’s A Terrible Thing. Halfway through he was joined by saxophone. Over this sparse musical backing, lyrics like “People tell me ‘boy you dodged a bullet’/but if only it had hit me then I’d know the peace it brings” demanded their due attention.

Then the full band returned to the stage to close with yet another cover, this time of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Portrait Of A Man. Williams’ delivered it as a frontman with mic-in-hand, looking grim and forlorn as he half-sung half-whispered the lyrics, as though purposefully presenting the song as a closing summary of the performance and of his own songwriting – “I am painting in oil, a portrait of a man/who has taken all the heartaches/and all the pain he can stand”. From there the song built up into an explosive soul climax, showing once again that the realm of classic old pop is where Williams is truly at home. The song was dragged on a little too long and a little too dramatically, with numerous false endings and restarts, but overall it worked well as an unexpected last track.

It seems like Marlon Williams has little left to prove that isn’t hammered home with perfection on Make Way For Love. Yet seeing these songs breathe live is really another thing entirely. The sound was great, the band played their parts fantastically, but in the end it’s Williams’ distinctive emotional voice and beautifully crafted compositions that will shine through any musical setting. For as long as he can write songs and sing, he’ll be an act to see.

Marlon Williams – The Hunter Lounge May 19, 2018

Ruben Mita

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