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Review: Marlon Williams and The Yarra Benders at Bodega

Friday 26th June 2015

Freshly returned from their UK tour, Marlon Williams and The Yarra Benders drew an eclectic, and incredibly punctual sold out crowd last night to Wellington’s Bodega. By 8.30pm there was already a queue and by 9.00pm the venue was completely packed out, with the confined space turning as hot as a sweltering Texas summer.

Opening act, folky Melbourne-based Laura Jean has a soulful, sweet voice and graceful stage presence. Despite being unfortunately drowned out by low volume and loud beer orders, her voice was pitch-perfect, and full of emotion. At one point she summed up the difficulty of the situation by telling the audience, “I can’t see you. I feel like I’m having difficulty connecting with you.”

Despite the challenging gig environment, Jean has an enchanting voice and an ethereal presence. Switching between guitar and autoharp during her set, she proved the perfect introduction for a night of soulful music.

Marlon Williams and his band, The Yarra Benders, started the show with a display of impeccable bluegrass harmonising that welcomed the audience into the intimate atmosphere. Frontman Williams is a skilled storyteller with a riveting stage presence, and while flashes of his charismatic smile contradicted the tragic scope of his songs at times, it didn’t undermine them. He thrived onstage, adding impromptu Jurassic Park references and sociable banter scattered throughout the night.

Williams has a powerful voice with Johnny Cash depths and Jeff Buckley highs that wraps itself around varied lyrics with ease, expertly weaving country threads and bluegrass twangs with flawless showmanship.

The band has fantastic chemistry and each performer had such evident, infectious passion for the music they create. Fiddler, mandolinist, and guitarist Dave Kahn is a force to be reckoned with, switching instruments in a flash and playing each with equal expertise. Skilled drummer Gus Agars, and the all-around talent bassist Ben Woolley added intensity to the music.

The songs, which were largely drawn from William’s debut solo album are perfect country ballads, balancing emotional lyrics and heart-felt melodies. They translate well to live performances and album single ‘Dark Child’ really stood out for its passionate, engaging vocals.

Among the selection was a Screaming Jay Hawkins cover ‘Portrait of a Man’, which Williams and The Yarra Benders had no problem making their own, imbuing the song with plenty of their individual sound. Laura Jean was also invited back onstage, and shyly loaned her voice to two more songs, including the show finale - a cover of The Zombies ‘Time of the Season’ performed with raucous musicianship and wiggly dancing from Williams. It was a joyous, memorable performance, underpinned by great songwriting and fine musicianship.

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