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City Recital Hall, June 6


WELL, IT IS what it said on the tin.

The loosely aligned City Recital Hall series which takes in Marlon Williams’ shows is called Singular Voices. In the main the term is applied broadly: off-centre songwriters and adventurous experimenters, quality mainstream figures and the attractively niche. Their voices sometimes are conventional and sometimes imperfect, sometimes pretty and sometime an acquired taste. But generally within bounds.

Williams though is the exception and the rule.

His voice is so many things: a blend of high Pacific tenderness and art pop’s embrace of pretension, a pre-rock crooner and country vulnerable, and under it all the separated-at-birth twins of warbling Elvis-ness and the traditions of Māori singing.

It can swoop like it is reaching for god, and it can hover, hanging like the thick fug of incense, he let it run through a Roy Orbison-like ballad such as Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore and when he briefly messed with it with on-stage treatments and layering, it fluttered wildly.

Williams had entered to a percussive click track and foot-stamping, singing a compelling Māori song in dim light and under a hoodie, the only movement his hands. Then at the piano came one that sounded like Tim Buckley singing Tim Rose, all cursive folk shaped by soul. And a third song which was more Carole King meeting Neil Young, melodic pop soaked in low temper. All possibilities, and not a word said.

When he reshaped First TIme Ever I Saw Your Face into a hymn that spoke of the islands and the blue hills in equal measure it drew the air out of the room, as if we didn’t want to risk interfering with this message. When he followed it with a song in language we sighed at the quiet frankness of that tone.

“It’s nobody’s fault I was born this way,” he sings. And it is both explanation and dismissal of any explanation that boxes him in, as when he finally pushed back the hoodie and the light rose to show him smiling.

This first set was his lonely boy one he told us, but he couldn’t hold the position the whole time, a stray nervous giggle occasionally betraying him. Yet when he pulled the hoodie back up and sang unaccompanied a song that seemed to capture a path between prayer, lament and farewell, it closed the set with singular grace. Too soon really; a night of this fare alone would be stunning.

After the interval, Williams emerged in an outfit that was part Mao suit, part pyjamas, dancing out from the bony hips to the backing tape, singing the languidly oriental, groovy My Boy. “This is karaoke hour,” he grinned. “I’m the star!”. And in charm as much as litheness, he was.

In these odd little elegantly funky pop songs – another is Don’t Go Back – and a grand, augmented-on-tape, choral ballad, his Bryan Ferry emerged to join the cavalcade, though Ferry never danced like this, equally affected and unfettered. But then Ferry never wrote a song about his favourite New Zealand bird (the hoiho, if you’re wondering) either, so Christchurch 2 Durham 0.

The second set eventually relocated to a small table with red tablecloth and wooden chairs under a bordello lampshade hanging above. Knickknacks, a tumbler and a crystal decanter of whiskey (“It is real,” he assured as he imbibed), a globe and a couple of guitars – including a $150 pawnshop score – surrounded him.

It was some classy/shabby chic already promising a more varied emotional tone for the next hour, and it delivered, with the blues (a Lonnie Johnson cover) and blues adjacent (his own Devil’s Daughter, which starts “Woke up this morning”, so you know it must be the real thing), an almost hymnal song in language about being quite sanguine adrift on the ocean with death approaching (Aua atu ra) and the slow burn torch song (Love Is A Terrible Thing) working their magic.

So much so, that Williams got a standing ovation, one that had been brewing you suspect since that stunning first half hour. What a singular experience that had been.


Marlon Williams plays The Tivoli, Brisbane, June 12-13; Odeon Theatre, Hobart, June 16; Melbourne Recital Centre, June 20-21; The Sound Doctor, Anglesea, June 22-23; Astor Theatre, Perth, June 25; The Gov, Adelaide, June 27-28.


A version of this review was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald


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