Photos by Ian Laidlaw
From incredible covers to opera renditions and spellbinding originals, this performance had everything.
This is the kind of experience that re-affirms your faith in humanity. This was an ethereal evening in amongst the chaos of White Night as Hamer Hall provided a sanctuary of calm for the New Zealand-born singer. Performing as part as the Supersense Festival, Marlon Williams brought his band, The Yarra Benders for a performance of his mournful masterpiece Make Way For Love with the accompaniment of The Impossible Orchestra, a specially created ensemble comprising 30 exceptional musicians, most of whom are members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Despite the unsociable 7pm start, Marlon, dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, entered stage right with his fashionable mullet flapping enthusiastically behind him. What happened over the next 90 minutes was something every attendee will remember for many years. The melancholic beauty of Williams’ music was made even more resplendent with the swirling strings of Ji Won Kim and her troupe of violinists. With Williams rotating between his guitars and an opulent grand piano, he cut an imposing figure as he strode the stage microphone in hand.
With the setlist predetermined by the title of the evening’s performance, the focus shifted to how the band would integrate the album with Brett Kelly’s conducting and it was a masterful composition. Unlike other band and orchestra arranged marriages, The Impossible Orchestra delighted in their restraint and their flourishes were never too pervasive and instead of smothering the original arrangements, they lifted the heart-swelling crescendos to new heights.
In an interesting choice, The Yarra Benders debuted a new song midway through the album’s performance that sounded conspicuously happy. It was almost a radio jingle and it created a jarring change of mood that took away from the sombre seriousness of Make Way For Love. And whilst it is relieving to know Marlon has moved on from the devastating end to his relationship with fellow Kiwi artist Aldous Harding, it was probably just a poor choice of timing. But once regular proceedings resumed, Williams once again captivated the audience with his towering presence, telling us how grateful he is to have the opportunity to flesh out an album that is so personal for him with such brilliant musicians.
What cannot be understated is the power of his voice. He is simply the most rawly talented Antipodean alive and watching him so effortlessly control his vibrato is a wonder to behold. The Elvis and Roy Orbison comparisons are tired, but what hasn’t been talked about enough is his languid, latent sexuality. Like a young Bowie, there’s a mysterious, asexual je ne sais quoi about the way he moves on stage and it’s mesmerising.
At the conclusion of the album’s title track, the band exit unceremoniously, leaving Marlon and thirty of his closest new friends to keep us company. And this is when the concert, which up until this moment had been predictably beautiful, took a turn for the sublime. With only his acoustic guitar in hand, he performed ‘When I Was A Young Girl’ and his cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘Portrait Of A Man’ in a manner that hinted at true greatness in his art. Hamer Hall stood for ten minutes in a vacuum as every note plucked from his guitar reverberated through the theatre. It was if he was channelling Leonard Cohen.
And most thought that was it. Handbags were being packed and jackets were being gathered, until Williams suddenly appeared – although a very different Marlon, now disrobed from his bowtie and standing in a ’50s singlet. He meekly apologises, as if he is keeping us from somewhere better as he admits that this might be his only opportunity to live out his dream of singing opera. And as The Impossible Orchestra begins ‘Je Crois Entendre Encore’ from the opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles by the French composer Georges Bizet, we stand to witness Marlon Williams transform himself into a completely different beast. Tears were shed in the most magical live performance Hamer Hall has played host to for quite some time. At its conclusion, a stunned audience stood up to give Williams a unified standing ovation, though some were still picking their jaws up from the floor.
As if coy about ending on a note of such haute couture, he then suggests we end the evening on a singalong, beginning his cover of Harry Nilsson’s classic ‘Without You’, though it’s now most commonly known in the zeitgeist as a Mariah Carey banger. The initial laughter at his choice of cover subsided quickly and the audience sang their lungs out, as Williams took his place in the choir as baritone and we all did the rest. It was glorious.
Highlight: The 90 minutes from 7pm to 8.30pm last Friday evening.
Lowlight: 8.31pm as I walked into White Night.
Crowd Favourite: Singing opera in French is more impressive than it sounds.