Marlon Williams played at Villa Maria this past Saturday night.

Review: Marlon Williams with the APO at Villa Maria Estate

Waveney Russ is impressed by an outstanding performance from Marlon Williams and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at Villa Maria in Auckland.

This review was first published on RNZ Music.

I’ve always wanted to have the patience, depth of character and intellect to enjoy a night out at the orchestra, but before tonight I had yet to experience it.

It’s taken vineyards, mid-summer heat, residual heartache, and a mullet (because I’ve heard they’re back in fashion) to get me here.

Villa Maria’s natural amphitheatre is the perfect setting for Marlon Williams’ performance with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Even the back of the outdoor stage is designed to mimic a beachside resort for this, the third stop on Marlon’s Tūrangawaewae tour.

According to the handmade signs outside the artists’ tents, tonight on the bill we have:

Emily’s Fair Lighthouse

Don McSplashin

Marlin Williams

Oh, and let’s not forget, the APO.

Backstage at Marlon Williams’ Villa Maria show with the APO Photo: Steven Marr

As I wander through the gravel entryway, kids tumble down banks and chase each other through the grape vines, two older women pose for a picture high-fiving in front of the food carts.

There’s ample shade, and no competition to claim it. Within moments of arrival I’m starfishing on a picnic blanket and chowing down on a tofu donburi.

The crowd are remarkably well-behaved, partly due to Villa Maria’s drinks policy: one token per person, two tokens per bottle of wine, one bottle between two. Brilliant, in my opinion.

Emily Fairlight’s opening set delivers the first highlight of the day: a wonderful rendition of ‘Water Water’ from her 2018 album Mother Of Gloom. It’s hard to slip, slop, slap and wrap a guitar though, and Fairlight faces some difficulties with the tuning of her instrument in the searing early evening heat. Marlon Williams darts out in an impromptu appearance, hours before he’s due on-stage, to deliver a guitar from out back. No stress, she’s straight back in action.

Christchurch dreamboat Marlon Williams.

The second support act, Don McGlashan, closes his set with ‘Anchor Me’, stripped back to the essentials. A voice that carries, and a piano that transports all of us home to a place of belonging, a place to stand.

Surely such a moving rendition of an anthem like ‘Anchor Me’ is a tough act to follow? I see some doubtful faces surveying the stage, as one-by-one, the APO take their seats.

I’ve watched Marlon Williams perform four times in the past year or so, first to a modest audience of five hundred at San Fran in Wellington. He debuted his 2018 track ‘Love is a Terrible Thing’ to a room that couldn’t quite gauge where the irony of the song began, and the melodrama concluded. Then at Wellington’s Hunter Lounge, where audience members yelled at one another for taking photos, and the notoriously cool-headed Marlon appeared flustered and impatient.

Most recently I saw him at the Glenroy Auditorium in Dunedin, where a lone voice from the back row tore through: “Take your top off!” it screamed. Marlon obliged.

There’s always been a natural showmanship to Marlon, which in the past has been slightly underdeveloped and inhibited. Perhaps it was months touring in Europe with his band the Yarra Benders that made the difference, because it isn’t until he arrives on the Villa Maria stage, thousands of eyes locked on the orchestra, that I see it all click into place.

It starts slow. Fringe favourites ‘Come To Me’, and ‘I Know a Jeweller’ introduce the audience to the introspective, hyper-personal elements of 2018’s Make Way for Love, while simultaneously echoing the old-timey narratives reminiscent of earlier work.

His set list so far mirrors the opening tracks of Live at Auckland Town Hall, released two weeks ago: it’s familiar and charted territory.

He sings of people, places and things that never really existed; a world outside the one we’ve fashioned in this amphitheatre. The sound of the orchestra, the Yarra Benders and Marlon himself is mixed to perfection. You can’t fault it.

“Let us indulge,” he says, and the amphitheatre collectively breathes out. Most audience members are fans of Marlon, some are simply APO regulars, and others just love good wine and a chance to get out of the city.

Marlon is a paralysingly captivating performer. It’s not the act to follow ‘Anchor Me’, it is The Act.

The APO effect creeps up on you. It’s not as all-consuming as I expected, and having the orchestra situated in a depression behind both Marlon and his band does distract the eye and ear from composer Claire Cowan’s carefully constructed layers.

Marlon makes a point to create space for the orchestra during ‘Fire of Love’, kneeling stage right, infatuated by the string section.

The strings are haunting, they howl their way through ‘Strange Things’ and ‘Dark Child’. The APO has constructed their own sonic storm clouds; if Marlon owns the stage, the APO own the atmosphere. “This is a dream,” Marlon says, and we believe it.

A bluesy twist arrives mid-show, and we’re introduced to a new set of covers and a dazzling original that celebrates the inevitability of birth: if you get no choice in the matter, I hope you enjoy being someone. “Yeah,” Marlon croons, “You’re really gonna be someone.”

Christchurch dreamboat Marlon Williams.

If Marlon banging away at the piano is a hint at the direction he’s heading beyond Make Way for Love, I’m in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll continue to indulge in the sorrow of ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, the lull of ‘I Didn’t Make A Plan’ and the heartbreaking sincerity of ‘Beautiful Dress’, but we’ve had our year of crying more than we danced.

Don McGlashan re-enters to play a french horn solo for ‘Love is a Terrible Thing’, and it’s a little much to bear for some.

Two women who’ve been dancing to every song (even the devastatingly sad ones. Mostly the devastatingly sad ones) can’t take it anymore. They run to the back of the seated area to let loose.

Two generations of extraordinary Kiwi musicians master a sound for the ages – and I’m as doe-eyed as the kuia sitting next to me. She winks at me. The big crescendo is coming. She doesn’t know how all of this is about to end, but I do.

“I’m painting in oil,” he sings.

If you’ve been to a Marlon performance before, you know how it ends too.

A man from Lyttleton. 6 foot something crazy, towering above the audience and his band members. Back-lit in blood red. You can’t see his face.

“I am using all the colour of blue.”

He’s singing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘Portrait of a Man’.

The flautist in the orchestra increases the tempo. It’s wailing. It’s desperate.

“I have here, on my stand.”

He peels his western-style button-up off. Sitting down at the front of the stage, the man leans against the monitor.

“I am painting in oil.”

His voice is thunderous, it could be violent if the man himself didn’t look so slight.

His volume increases, louder and louder, the orchestra is frenzied.

“A portrait.”

High drama at its finest, he’s kicked the earth and broken his foot.

“And I am, the man.”

As he takes his final performative breath, we see every rib slick against his white wife-beater singlet.

“A portrait, and I am the maaaaaaan!”

The standing ovation comes as no surprise. For many audience members, this was their first time seeing Marlon live. His flawless vocal performance combined with regular switching of instruments and musical genres, and charmingly awkward, comically threatening dance moves, has captured the imagination of the entire winery crowd.

There’s a new, polished Marlon emerging, and if New Zealand isn’t ready for him, somewhere bigger and brighter sure will be.

As for the orchestra, by the end of the night, I’m sold. The APO could play me the entire Philosophy of the World album back-to-back, and I would sit in a trance wondering how humans ever got music so right.

I was hooked with the promise of an outstanding performance by a world-class musician, with background music provided by an orchestra.

In reality, the APO deserve to be the stars. Never before have I found orchestral music so accessible. I’d love to see them convert my generation to orchestral fiends. One down, a few billion to go.

I’ll be back for more (Teeks’ and Nadia Reid’s upcoming APO shows), and you can bet I’ll be dragging a few fellow Gen Z’s along with me. They love the orchestra too, they just don’t know it yet.

Final verdict: Mullets are back in, and the APO was never out.


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