There were many great things to be said about Marlon Williams & The Yarra Benders at the Divan Orange. We shall start with the obvious and answer the question of whether his album translates well to the stage. On this count, it is an obvious yes. Indeed, what was most remarkable was the unexpected nature of the show. While his self-titled debut album is heavier on the quieter crooners, songs such as ‘Dark Child’ went on such a long jam that I thought I was in for a night at the Foufounes Électriques. Signature song ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ was played at breakneck speed (not easy, given the original timing) to close the set and bring the crowd to rapturous applause. In sum, Williams wasn’t just playing for the rocking chair crowd.
Marlon Williams the man, solo, is apt to put one in a stargazing with the dog kind of mood. As he stepped onto stage with only an acoustic guitar, it became immediately apparent that the former choirboy would steal hearts and crush any aspiring Voice or Idol hopes with just his voice. Unlike classic country crooners, Williams didn’t demonstrate a deep, resonating voice, but rather one which seemed to float and hang in the air like an unanswered question. His performance bordered on the opera, especially on ‘When I Was Young’, each note drawn out for as long as possible, keeping the crowd tension high.
However, billed as Marlon Williams & The Yarra Benders, the latter changed the dynamic of the show completely. Dave Khan played string instruments for the most part, dabbling in guitar now and then, Ben Woolley played stand-up and electric bass, and Gus Agars was on drums. Khan was a revelation and proved to be a strong rhythmic base for the band. He also gets the very noteworthy mention of being the first person that I’ve ever seen playing electric slide mandolin. Together the band could play lightning fast country songs, new songs with Celtic undertones, or even harmonise vocals for a beautiful rendition of ‘Come To Me’. It’s this spirit of collaboration that really brings out the best in Williams. For two songs, he sang a duet with Aldous Harding, a singer-songwriter from their country, New Zealand. A ‘Lonely Side Of Her’ could really only be topped by what felt like an auditory revelation: a song in Maori about home. There’s another first for me.
Finally, there were the covers. Done incorrectly, it can seem like a desperate lunge to pad the setlist. Of course, for bands with only one album to their setlist, it’s almost a necessity. Praise goes to the band here for each and everyone of their selections proved to be a great nostalgic trip (Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End Of The World’), musical discovery (two songs by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley), or a freaking explosion in a burning house (Screaming Jay Hawkins’ ‘Portrait Of A Man’ had Williams screaming his lungs out). With the latter as a finale of the encore, Williams said a friendly bye and thanks to Montreal.