By Jarred Tito
Artist: Marlon Williams
Date / Venue: Friday February 20th, The Tuning Fork, Auckland
It's Friday night in downtown Auckland City. The weather is just about what you'd expect for an evening in the month of February, warm with a slight breeze and the sun at its final stages. The streets seem strangely empty of foot traffic with only the odd car circling, most likely doing what I am, hunting the almost impossible to find three meters of sanity... a free parking space. I'm making my way to a comparatively small concert venue tagged onto the side on the formidable Vector Arena, The Tuning Fork (a modern, classer version of The Kings Arms. It's slightly bigger and cleaner smelling but is still rectangular in shape, bar at one end and raised stage at the other.) I have now been searching unsuccessfully for half an hour and am wondering if it is all worth it when suddenly my pot of gold stands vacant before me awaiting my car felt embrace. I check the meter and see that it's free parking until 8 am the next day and with clinched fist, internalise a loud, yes! But now have a four block walk ahead of me!
As I approach the venue I am beginning to wonder if there is a concert at all because there are no tell-tale signs of a burgeoning crowd or ticket sales. The Vector seems like a veritable ghost town? My doubts are quickly put to rest. There he is, the tall, lean, early twenty something figure of Marlon Williams in the flesh standing outside the venue having a casual conversation with a punter, draining the last puffs out of his cigarette. He's wearing his signature straw hat, the kind you might buy in New Orleans during the summer. Should I say hello as I enter or is the quick lift of the eye-brows enough? I go with the second option, not wanting to put him off his pre-gig, build up, ritual though I am now under the strong impression that this whole affair is very casual and not the deal I thought it would be. After all, this is a semi-country n' western, folk slash alternative cow punk event, right? Things are supposed to be casual so I need to settle down and ease myself into the moment.
After a 10 minute haggle with security debating my legitimacy as a reviewer for Marlon's performance, I receive my seal of approval by way of stamped wrist. This haggle renews my frustration and my nerves are almost at their end and I am seriously contemplating an early exit and begin to think up a strategy. Luckily I choose to stay because what I, we the audience, are about to experience, for my part, is one of the most endearing collection of songs and performances that I have ever had the privilege of being involved in. Marlon is without a doubt one of the most gifted singer song writers that I have encounter in my life, and I am not I'm reserving that claim to just New Zealand or even Australia but from around the world.
Marlon takes the stage at around 9:30pm to a now full and pumped audience made up of all ages and styles. Some, like me, new to the whole Marlon Williams phenomenon and others seasoned fans that seemed to know the words to all of his songs. The house lights go out and eventually we can make out the sole figure of Marlon organising his microphone and guitar. (Shades of Neil Young the first time he ever played at Western Springs in the 80's. The crowd was pumped and ready to go and Neil and Crazy horse took 5 minutes to re-tune their guitars before the first song. It was great).
Marlon introduces himself in a subtly confident manner. He possesses the confidence of a performer much more his senior but does so without any of the arrogance you might expect from someone climbing the musical accolades as quickly as he is. He starts with a song called, Lucy Died, the first song in a series of solo performances. He is a man and his guitar lulling the crowd with his silky smooth vocals and cleverly articulated lyrics that quickly wins the crowd and has them holding on to every word. That song is followed up by 'I'm a Creature', 'Colorado Girl' and then with a classic Jim Reeves song, 'He'll Have to Go'. By the time Marlon got this song (what he confessed to be a little bit of self-indulgence) I was already a new convert to the whole alternate Country thing, but after he performed his version of Jim's classic, there was no turning back. I could now see that whatever it was that Jim Reeves possessed that would take him to the very top of the charts and secure a place for him in the hearts of many thousands even millions, Marlon Williams also possessed (at what capacity I am not sure. But it is definitely there). By this time he had completely won the hearts of everyone in the auditorium and not only with his performance but also with his open and inviting personality. I felt like I was seeing someone who was not unlike a young Elvis before he was discovered. I am serious when I say that Marlon somehow possesses that same quality which I have not often seen. Now I am aware that Australia is already claiming him as their own, and it would be fair to say that much of his success has come from over the ditch. New Zealand , not slow in being out done is equally claiming ownership and rightfully so as he is a self-confessed cantabrian. In my opinion Marlon is much more than either. He is a rare quality in musician who should not be limited to a geographical position but should be realised for what he is, a musical entity that is spare heading a rising style of classic alt-country and class rock and may it be limited.
After his last solo, The Lonely Side of Her, which was brilliant highlighting his signature style of guitar playing, plucking heavily on the top E-string to the point where I think it's going to break (which I now understand it as being a unique part of his sound), Marlon invited his touring band to the stage. In a true gentlemen like fashion he introduced each of the three members, Vance Parsons (Peddle Steel guitar and lead guitar from Australia), Jason Johnson (Wellingtonian on the bass guitar and also from the curtain opener, 'Even Sparrow'which did a brilliant job of prepping the audience) and Gus (drums from Adelaide). Whatever the levels of musical bless were before, these guys combining with Marlon, were about to take us to the next level. Wow! We were taken into the deep soul felt story telling as only folk can, under the heavy persuasion and undertones of rock guitar and tactful drumming . Now when I say folk I am only using this term because I can't quite explain exactly what style the music was other than to say that it involved a combination of blues, soul, rock, RnB. I would even go so far as to describe parts of Marlon's music as a revival of where Jeff Buckley was taking us before his untimely death, with soulful ballads sung with deep conviction and unforgettable wailing which almost moves you to tears.
We're treated to 'Everyone's Got Something to Say' a new song the group is touring, and might I add that Van Parsons' guitar solos were phenomenal. Jason was not unlike the Flea from the Chilli Peppers racing around the stage completely absorbed in the moment and lost somewhere in bass. The night reached a new height when 'Dark Child' was performed which was then followed by Miss Lonesome, The State Hospital and a new track, Everyone's Got Something to Say. The set was closed off with another classic rock/blues, folk, alt-country classic, 'First there was a Funeral' and then lastly 'The Trouble I'm In.'
The crowd was left reeling and wanting more from what seems to be the biggest kept secret in what good music is. If there is going to be an encore where would Marlon take the crowd? Does he bring the band out again and try to one up their last song? No, instead Marlon re-enters the stage alone, guitar in hand and performs, 'When I Was a Young Girl' an acoustic ballad. How can anyone make a song with that title sung by a male, sound cool? But he did and more. You could honestly hear a pin drop on the carpet floor. The audience, along with myself, were mesmerised by this performance. I don't know if it was the lyrics or the tune. I suspect it was Marlon's emotional and heartfelt expressions of the song that we all felt in truck loads when he hit the high and sustained notes which filled us with a certain reverence.
His final song, which he invited the band to re-join him on stage was a Screaming Jay Hawkin's classic ballad,'Portrait of a Man'. If I had any doubts about the specialness of this particular performer's ability and gift, they were completely gone after this. After experiencing that song which is pure poetic genius, I am left with little doubt that Marlon Williams is a rare and gifted talent that New Zealand, Australia and world seldom get to enjoy. I am so glad that I made the effort to see this phenomenon and am quite humbled and excited by the talent and person. Last words... not since Buckley and Elvis have I been this much impressed. Marlon Williams is surely the future of something incredible in the music industry. Oh and when I left there was Marlon, out in front of the Tuning Fork, exactly where he was when I first entered, chatting to another punter. This time I made sure to say hello and thanked him for his outstanding performance. I not sure he full understands how good he is. I hope he never loses that down to earth, approachable, friendliness no matter how far he goes in the industry.