Marlon Williams @ Whelan’s 24th February 2018

The first thing that's noticeable about Marlon Williams as he arrives on stage this evening to a packed Whelans is how tall he is. Decked out in narrow legged trousers that barely reach his ankles, white socks, black Dr. Martens shoes and a tight fitting brown shirt, his fashion sense is very much the early 70's suede head look. It's his third occasion to play Whelans and with his smooth plush vocals and crack band he doesn’t put a foot wrong from start to finish of his ninety-minute set. A chorister in his childhood before discovering Hank Williams and taking a fancy to all things honky tonk, it's difficult to characterise his music, though he seems content to be placed in the Americana pigeon hole at present.

His second album Make Way For Love was released only last month. Inspired by his breakup with Australian artist Aldous Harding late last year, it is ‘heart on the sleeve’ material from start to finish and even includes a co-write by the 27-year-old New Zealander with his former partner. It’s also an exceptionally strong album and it features in the main this evening, in a setlist that also dips into his debut self-titled album from 2016, together with a couple of interesting covers.

On stage Williams moves between guitars, keyboards, accompanied by his band Yarra Benders, whose members are Gus Agars (drums), Dave Khan (guitar, keyboards, electric violin) and Ben Wooley (bass, vocals). Collectively they manage to create an orchestral effect by times, replicating William’s studio sound to absolute perfection, their backing vocals and harmonies where relevant being particularly notable.

The tear jerker Can I Call You, with its deft call and response vocals between Williams and Wooley, works wonderfully. Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore (the Aldous Harding co-write), Make Way For Love and Love’s A Terrible Thing, all from his latest album, feature Dave Khan adding atmospheric violin to Williams silky vocals. Also performed from the album are the set opener Come To Me, Beautiful Dress, I Didn’t Make A Plan and What’s Chasing You.

What is refreshing about the material is the lack of anger in the songs given their backdrop. They’re confessional, aching, questioning and heart wrenching and delivered so passionately by Williams and his colleagues. The powerful lines from Love’s A Terrible Thing ("People tell me, boy, you dodged a bullet. But if only it had hit me, the I’d know the peace it brings") best sums up the heartache that motivated the material on the album.

A cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy follows a similar ‘lost love’ theme but despite the melancholy subject matter the performance throughout is upbeat and delivered by an artist quite obviously enjoying himself as much as the few hundred punters. Given that the newer material may not be familiar to many in attendance, its no surprise that the biggest cheers of the evening follow the two stand out tracks from his debut album, I’m Lost Without You and Dark Child. You might not expect an Olivia Newton John song to feature but William’s finale is the Barry Gibb, Albhy Galuten written Carried Away, immortalised by the Australian singer in the early 80’s and like everything else concerning tonight’s show, it works a treat.  

No doubt Make Way For Love, as it gains further exposure in the coming months, will be a strong candidate for album of 2018 for many and judging by the reaction of those lucky enough to attend this evening this show should also be a contender for gig of the year. Wonderful stuff indeed!

Review and photographs by Declan Culliton