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Marlon Williams - Gig Review: Marlon Williams @ The Civic, Auckland - 20/01/2023

22 Jan 2023 // A review by Roger Bowie

Marlon Williams has returned to New Zealand after an extensive tour of North America and Northern Europe, to showcase his 2022 release My Boy. He does not disappoint.

Two shows in Auckland, and yet to come are Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Marlon pays respect to his fellow Kiwi travellers by choosing different support acts for each show. Last night (Thursday) was Nadia Reid, and tonight, in contrast, rising indie rocker Vera Ellen, although there will always be someone who can’t tell the difference...

This is a compelling double bill for me, because firstly Vera Ellen has been on my radar but never captured until tonight, with a few tracks summoned up before the show. And as for Marlon, I remember being puzzled and somewhat distraught when the My Boy single was released. Has he sold his country roots to the devil and gone pop? Only to finally being seduced and then captivated by the rich variety and legacy which makes up the album. It might be a little poppy, but it is subtly a retro perspective on all the great pop-rock moments of the 60's, 70's and 80's, with nods to the greatness of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Roxy Music and even, wryly, to the Bee Gees and Barbara Streisand. Marlon knows something I don’t know about his musical direction. He knows what he is doing. I will never doubt him again.

Vera Ellen is from Lower Hutt and Los Angeles and has been in a few post punk rock bands including Girl Friday before going solo and releasing her debut album around October last year. She writes prolifically, and tonight she walks on calmly and confidently, with a little bow, dressed in white and starting acoustic, “I haven’t been home in a long time but I know where I’m going” the surety compromised by the vulnerable “I’m in danger, I haven’t been stable for a long time”. This sets the tone, the worldly-wise staying 21 all her life, and the uncertain young adult, going to Broadway Junction, where “I didn’t jump”.  Her band join her for the second song, and the tone goes electric, with a Courtney Barnett sound which certainly Crack(s) the Whip. Power chords are guttural and emphatic, then the beat gets heavier and we are back in Los Angeles serving coffee to the Yuppie Farm. Aspiring artists need day jobs.

Remember that glorious time in early 90's Brit pop and rock when the singers and guitarists were often female, sometimes the entire group? This is the sound which we hear tonight, not all the time, but just enough to make me speculate that Vera Ellen has also listened to our very own Julie Dolphin, who participated in that era.

Songs from her debut album, other songs I can’t quite source, maybe new songs. A song to her new-born niece, Ava Maria, and the 8 song set ends with Where The Sun.

Vera Ellen won the best new Alternative Award at last year's Aotearoa Music Awards. After tonight’s performance, there’s little wonder. I’m going to her next Auckland gig, that’s my New Year’s resolution.

There’s a south Pacific rhythm playing as Marlon saunters on with his shadow cast onto a white backdrop, a silhouette in the shade, and the silhouette appears to be lip synching the words, sung in Te Reo Maori, before it’s apparent that he is actually singing. Maybe it's an illusion but a successful one at that. I think the song is Arahura from the album with Kacy & Clayton but this time no English words. Marlon has been working on his Te Reo for a few years now and  it’s time. Now we see him in the light as he picks up his guitar and launches into Devils Daughter from the same album. So familiar, but I hadn’t counted on hearing these songs live. Marlon the magician. Marlon the Elvis.

Easy Does It as the main act begins with the most country of the new album’s songs, and the band strike up with Dave Khan on fiddle. The Yarra Benders are back with Ben Woolley on bass, Gus Agars on drums, Dan Luskin on guitars and things, and the aforementioned Dave on mellotron and everything else. Superb.

The by now familiar and no longer annoying, no, captivating, doo doo doo intro strikes up and our boy is back. Marlon has described this song as a pop song with a Maori strum (tongue in cheek) and some British press have now labelled him as New Zealand’s Maori pop singer, which I find slightly offensive. He’s New Zealand’s Elvis and Roy who happens to be proud of his heritage and so he should be, and this is just a great pop song. So much of My Boy is autobiographical, but none more so than My Heart the Wormhole a beating organ in space and time which ports him back to an argument with his father when he was his boy.

Soft Boys Make the Grade is introduced as something of a Ted Talk, Marlon by now presenting the most relaxed and confident on-stage persona than I have seen before. And this is the point I cannot overemphasise, here now is an artist totally comfortable in his skin, knowing who he is, and presenting himself with the self-declared authority of a Ted Talker. And a Netflixer, as he reveals the source of Thinking of Nina, a delightfully Roxy Music moment, conceived in a lockdown moment of binge watching. Kia Ora!

Aua atu Ra  is another delightful Maori song, reminds me  little of Howard Morrison, but tonight we don’t get the translation he offers his Northern European audiences, the weather has turned, the boat is taking on water, it’s falling apart, fuck it!

Marlon to the piano now, a song he describes as a hangover song, Princes Walk, maybe a Harry hangover?

The gorgeous Trips,  a two octave journey which might just be a Titanic version of  Aua Atu Ra has the Yarra Benders bending and shaping all the rivets of a shipwreck as Marlon has just about had it to here with them all so he tells them to bugger off for a piss and puts on his Beautiful Dress before the big drums come back, mightily relieved and Come to Me  completes a brace of songs from Make Way For Love and there’s more to come.

We return to the present with River Rival and Don’t Go Back which we’re allowed to dance to but haven’t yet gained permission until we’re into the second tranche of older songs including Vampire Again. Which leads to a discussion of what is his swansong and what might be the opposite? Somebody suggests signature, but I know it’s cygnet-ture.

Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore is the defining moment off Make Way For Love as Marlon succumbs to the human tendency to extrapolate and generalise someone’s else’s indecision. It’s also therapy.

The most glorious of finales with the Barry Gibb written for Barbara Streisand disco flop Promises transformed into a Nina Simone type moment as Marlon showcases his marvellous instrument in a crescendo of pathos and we bask in the light of magnificence.

An encore game is briefly played which is where Marlon brings up an old classic out of somewhere and tonight it’s I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You) and we’re all confessing that we love him too.

And finally, another Maori Waiata, I think it’s Rimurimu but I’m not sure, the only thing I am sure of is that Elvis has not left the building.

Marlon Williams setlist:

1. Arahura
Devil’s Daughter 
Easy Does It
My Boy
My Heart the Wormhole 
Soft Boys Make the Grade
Thinking of Nina 
Aua atu Ra
Princes Walk 
Beautiful Dress
Come To Me 
River Rival 
Don’t Go Back 
What’s Chasing You
Party Boy 
Vampire Again 
Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore
I’m Confessin’ 

Photo Credit: Chris Zwaagdyk / Zed Pics
Photos from The Civic show on 19 January 2023


About Marlon Williams

Marlon Williams won his first singing competition at the age of 11 at Lyttelton Main School and was stuck trying to balance the seesaw of his love for the lost souls of bluegrass and hellfire with his deep reverence for sacred choral music.

This set the course for his teenage years as he not only formed The Unfaithful Ways winning the best song award in 2008 , but toured Europe with the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Choir, supporting the Vienna Boys Choir.

The Unfaithful Ways first album, made album of the year, and went to the finals of the critics choice awards, causing perennial cynic Simon Sweetman to state “There have been a few Kiwi alt-country/folk ensembles in recent years; many of them seem to lack authenticity…But The Unfaithful Ways have found a way in; there’s something utterly believable about this music; that it should come from New Zealand and channel a version of Americana.”

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Marlon Williams


My Boy
Year: 2022
Type: Album
Plastic Bouquet w/ Kacy & Clayton
Year: 2020
Type: Album
Live At Auckland Town Hall
Year: 2019
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Make Way For Love
Year: 2018
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Marlon Williams
Year: 2016
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Live At La Niche
Year: 2013
Type: Album

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