London, October 30, 2018
EartH (formerly Hackney Arts Centre) feels more like an old warehouse than what it really used to be, an art deco cinema called The Savoy which opened in 1938. The space seems bigger than your usual cinema or theatre because the area behind the stage isn’t hidden behind walls or curtains. Instead it’s just a big empty space, save for a handful of huge white projectors that kind of looks like discarded prototypes of legendary Star Wars-robot R2D2.
It’s a beautiful, though slightly odd room. The walls with peeling paint are at odds with the ceiling with its intricate decorations, and the stage itself is really just a bare platform and nothing else. Though it’s an indoor venue, the audience may just as well have been outside, because on this autumn evening, the room is freezing cold. There seems to be no heating or if there is, it’s a room that refuses to warm to the around 1,000 visitors who have made their way here tonight, to see New Zealand singer-songwriter, Marlon Williams.
Supporting Williams is Australian singer-songwriter, Ryan Downey, who has a captivating deep honey voice singing heartfelt lyrics with a generous dash of deadpan observations like on Running: ‘…It’s getting sunny, I’ll be tanned and I’ll be charmed, I’ll be breathless in your arms, from all that running.’ Unfortunately, the coldness of the big room is a jarring contrast to the warmth of Downey’s voice and I can’t enjoy his set quite as much as I suspect I would have if I hadn’t been freezing to the bone.
The wait between support- and main-act is a cold affair and it’s relief when the slender Williams saunters on to the stage dressed in black apart from a light grey jacket. He tells the crowd ‘Happy Halloween, how we going everybody?’ before launching into the first song of the evening, a beautiful cover of folk-classic by Ewan MacColl, The First Time I Saw Your Face. Straight up we get a taste of his exceptional voice and an example of why it has been compared to Roy Orbison’s. The second song, Lonely Side of Her, is slightly slowed down, a bit darker and less ‘chirpy’ than the recorded version on Williams’ debut album, which really suits the song.
Then Williams’ band, The Yarra Benders, join him on the stage. Adding drums, bass, keyboards and backing vocals to his songs obviously add more flesh to the songs and frees Williams up to fool around a bit more (which he does, swaggering, boogieing around in some of the more uptempo songs), but I think he shines brightest when he sings the slower songs on his own.
The set is comprised of songs from his two albums as well as stand alone single, Vampire Again, and a few cover songs in the folky or bluesy vein – and just like he began the concert with a cover, the concert ends with another cover, Screaming Jay Hawkins’ Portrait of a Man, where Williams show off his superb screaming and howling skills. As the final song ends and we make our way out in the cold evening I’m reminded of how frozen I am, something I’d forgotten about halfway through the concert. Maybe it was the heartwarming songs burning through from the inside, keeping us warm for a while.
Ryan Downey setlist
Marlon Williams setlist