Marlon Williams looked a bit nervous when he walked on stage at the Villa Maria Winery. But who can blame him? It was a big gig.
Behind him the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra crowded the back half of the sizable stage squeezing Williams and his four piece to the front, while in front of him crowds spilled from the flat green in front of the stage up and onto the encircling slopes.
Just last May at his Auckland Town Hall show he'd remarked, "this is the largest amount of people we've ever had in a room to watch us,". It's fair to say that number was dwarfed.
Not only that, local living legend Don McGlashan had just left the weight of his incredibly lovely Anchor Me lingering in the air. Talk about a tough act to follow.
But Williams quickly proved more than worthy of his headline status. Opening with the slow build of Come to Me, this haunting Americana song, with its swelling orchestral strings, cowboy chords and violent electric-charged changes set the scene.
Judging by the crowd's reaction most would have been willing to overlook his new mullet hair-do and take him up on the invitation of the song's title...
From there he accelerated into the driving beat of the dark-50s pop of I Know a Jeweller. A great song but one that didn't leave a whole lot for the orchestra to do.
It was at this point I began to wonder if the APO was going to be relegated to adding occasional swells of strings or trills of flute. These APO shows can sometimes be a wasted opportunity but ahead of the show it felt like William's heavy-hearted, 50s-tinged Americana and alt-folk would be a perfect fit.
Putting down his guitar Williams greeted the crowd, "Good evening everybody, good to see you all." Stuffing his hands awkwardly into his pockets he said, "Let us indulge," and his drummer triggered a drum loop and the full power of the APO was unleashed and allowed to run wild.
As Williams hit the angelic high notes of The Fire of Love the orchestra went full George Martin behind him, transforming the song into a mad carnival of lush, swirling psychedelia reminiscent of the Beatles' mad classic, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite. It was brilliant and truly fulfilled the expectations set by performing with the APO.
After that he went and sat down at a piano. Turning to the audience he wiggled his fingers cartoonishly and with a cheeky grin joked, "I was gonna play Für Elise". Unable to resist he played a few of ol' Ludwig's notes before the APO's strings flooded the stage and the dark melodrama of I Didn't Make a Plan shook the crowd.
Williams approached his turbulent piano solo haphazardly, his wild playing not immune from the odd bum note, but each fumble greeted with a sly grin over his shoulder to the audience as he kept pounding the keys and the frenzied electric guitar solo took over and the APO crashed and bashed with everything they had
"Cheers!" he exclaimed when the chaos subsided.
"Here's a song about jealousy," he said as way of intro for the emotional beat-up of Can I Call You, his spitting accusation of, 'what are ya drinking?" powerfully venomous given the song's tortured genesis.
It could have bummed everybody out if not for the bouncy levity of single What's Chasing You? that immediately followed.
The orchestra gave a Peter Gunn Theme make-over to Williams' stomping Party Boy and the crowd got hot and heated when the stage went red and Williams' went full seductor in the devilish Vampire Again, serenading his mic, dancing around the stage and pulling every ounce of theatrical innuendo out of lyrics like 'I can smell you from a thousand yards,".
But, fittingly, it was the two final songs that were the showstoppers. Stepping into the spotlight with just his acoustic guitar Williams stunned the crowd into silence with a simply breathtaking solo performance of When I was a Young Girl, his remarkable voice, soaring masterfully and keeping everyone utterly captivated. The spell only broke when he plucked the final high guitar note letting the dazed crowd free to erupt.
That was gonna be hard to beat, but the full bodied sonic apocalypse of Portrait of a Man did the trick, the song's Nick Cave style chaos amplified tenfold by the APO. What it couldn't top in emotion it made up for with tumultuous frenzy that left people's ears ringing.
The show had promised to be something special, but unlike the protagonist and sentiment behind many of his songs, Marlon Williams' promise was more than fulfilled.