Marlon Williams at the Media Club, Vancouver, BC
For reasons too complex to go into, I missed this year’s Vancouver Folk Festival. The annual celebration of all things roots takes place on an ocean front beach site just outside of downtown Vancouver but I just couldn’t make it. Every year at Folk Fest there seems to be a buzz that builds around someone who’s playing for the first time ever, often on on of the smaller stages. Often times it’s someone who’s been around a bit and is just playing a really stellar piece of work, but sometimes it’s someone who seems to have barely made a ripple before.
Word from friends after last July’s festival leaned towards the latter, and there was one name on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Marlon Williams. The 24—yes, you read that correctly—year old New Zealand singer/songwriter played workshops and solo shows and left his audiences happy wherever he went and looking for the next stage he was on.
Mercifully for those of us who weren’t there, the Folk Festival books shows year round in Vancouver, and when they announced Williams’ return to the city at Vancouver’s tiny Media Club. As it turns out, that buzz from the summer hadn’t worn off either: at a venue where getting tickets at the door is normal the show was sold out almost two months in advance. All in all a nice return welcome for Marlon and his band on a show that was their first ever outside of Australasia. (The summer gigs were solo shows.)
Kicking off his set with a slow, drawn out cover of Peggy Seeger’s classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face proved to be a good strategy to open the night. Performed virtually as an a cappella number, there was an instant hush that fell over the crowd as all attention focused on the stage. After a resounding round of applause a cover of Cocaine Blues followed, before Williams decided to really engage his full band in a full on upbeat bluegrass rendition of The Stanley Brothers’ If That’s the Way You Feel and Nobody’s Lover Is Like Mine (a song that Williams joked marked the show’s transition from the “…passive aggressive on to the aggressive.”)
With any transcontinental flight kinks played out of the remarkably tall band’s joints things the band settled into playing original material, kicking off with Silent Passage and Strange Things from Williams’ soon to be released album. The latter, written “…after reading a little too much Edgar Allen Poe..” sounds like a classic bluesy murder ballad of the sort that makes for good fireside listening on a winter’s night. This was followed closely by Heaven for you, Prison for Me which Williams describes as his most earnest attempt at writing a country song.
Williams drew a laugh when he responded to a shout of “Rock and roll!” from an audience member at the back of the room with a gentle smile and quietly uttered “Sometimes. Sometimes.” Over the rest of the set the band continued to change styles effortlessly, delivering everything from the upbeat bluegrass that opened it to squawking edgy rock and roll guitar work and more traditional blues, all of which highlighed Williams’ vocal talents nicely.
So what does a slightly more than an hour set from a musician whose solo album isn’t officially available yet (pro tip: he’s got copies at the shows) promise for the future? This particular show reminded me of listening to Townes van Zandt’s live recordings: there’s a wry sense of humour that runs throughout, some killer originals and an artist who’s not afraid to throw in a few covers that acknowledge the fertile ground of trandition onto which he’s stepped. If I were pressed to choose a style, I’d say that the blues was at the heart of this show (The Ballad of Minnie Dean was introduced as “…a sad one, but I’m sure you’re used to that this far into the set”) but with wings that expanded all the way outward to traditional bluegrass and roots there was plenty of range to keep everybody happy.
All in all, this is one of the best debut shows I’ve ever caught and the talent on display and the audience’s response pretty clearly marks Williams as an artist to watch. If he comes your way grab tickets early because these shows are selling out, and it seems like that’s not going to stop. Save that ticket stub too—you’re going to want to remind people you were there once.
Marlon Williams is touring North America and Europe through the spring and complete dates are on his web site where you can also sign up for his newsletter. His debut solo album is set for release on February 19 in North America, and you can pre-order it from iTunes and the other usual places. If you’d prefer the vinyl, you can order it directly from Bandcamp as well.