Another sold-out crowd was ushered onto the lawns of the Melbourne Zoo on Saturday evening to enjoy a night of song and sustenance at the annual Zoo Twilights Sessions. The majority of the crowd hurried in early to see Marlon Williams, who – unlike most support acts – gets a reception just as big as the headline.
Sporting a slicked-back shoulder length new ‘do, the New Zealand singer-songwriter stood centre stage, flanked by his regular band The Yarra Benders ,and rollicked through a set of bluegrass classics, moody originals and spine-tingling murder ballads. Fan favourites ‘The Ballad of Minnie Dean’, ‘Lonely Side of Her’ and ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ got their usual outings, sprinkled in-between covers of The Stanley Brothers and Billy Fury.
Mandolin, lead guitar, double bass and drums were the make-up of the set, with Williams alternating between his acoustic guitar (where he appeared most comfortable) and a few fumbles on the electric. His hit single ‘Dark Child’ mesmerised complete with rip-roaring guitar solo and the musically melancholic ‘State Hospital’ had everyone swaying to the dark beat. ‘After All’ smacked of an upbeat Beach Boys before the encore saw us swooning at that voice. ‘When I Was A Young Girl’ is my personal favourite, and once again, Williams did not disappoint; crooning his way through ambiguous lyrics and holding impossibly long notes. Relaxed yet humbled, Williams and his band put on a solid 40-minute set, yet still left us hanging for more.
As the sun set and the stage lights lit up, a thin white duke emerged from side of stage. C. W. Stoneking. Supported by his brass and beat band and the dynamic backing vocals of Vika and Linda Bull and Maddy and Memphis Kelly (yes Paul’s daughters), Stoneking strapped on his golden guitar and ripped into ‘How Long’. Head-to-toe in white with a bowtie and hair shaven on the sides, a navy-esque Stoneking told a good tall tale, and none quite as fun as ‘The Zombie’. Kids bounced around their parents, imitating the backing singers’ Thriller like moves. “This is a dancing song,” Stoneking rasped as he introduced ‘Get On The Floor’, “but I don’t want you to mess up your picnic rugs or something.”
Slow-burning dark ballads ‘Mama Got The Blues’ and ‘Love Me Or Die’ gave the band breathing space, before Stoneking launched into the appropriate “jungle section” of the night. ‘I’m A Jungle Man’, ‘Jungle Lullaby’ and ‘Jungle Blues’ had everyone singing and bopping in their fold-up chairs, full of big band action and fuzzy guitar solos.
Even more perfect for the Zoo, yodel song ‘Lion Talkin’ Blues’ came mid-set, and provided the accidental hilarity highlight of the night. First, Stoneking stuffed up the tuning, remarking “I hope the tickets weren’t that expensive”. Then another, barely noticeable, fluff put him off and he couldn’t stop giggling. The crowd laughed back, and Stoneking chuckled more, and before we knew it the place was a sea of uncontrollable laughter. “Sssh,” he croaked. “Oh My God, we’re in a loop now, I’m in a loop.” It took a bit to compose himself, but finally, the third verse came and the song flowed and upon completion, whooping and cheering ensued. Stoneking mock wiped his brow. Thank God that was over.
Ballad ‘On A Desert Isle’ came next, (“I wrote this down the supermarket. I was looking for some chocolate barvarian. I’d never heard of that thing before”) though not fully uninterrupted (“there’s a bug in the back of my trousers and it’s biting me!”) before the final and best jungle number ‘Jungle Swing’ got the band and the crowd back on their feet. The Bull’s and Kelly’s harmonised well on ‘Good Luck Charm’ and gospel covers ‘Shelter For Me’ and ‘Yield Not To Temptation’, whilst Stoneking’s crackly wireless vocals came into their own on ‘Going Back South’ and the sing-along finale ‘Jailhouse Blues’.
Stoneking and co. put on a cracking Zoo show. It was fun, funny and frolicking, with great tunes, great tales and a great crowd. Stoneking flew through his repertoire, dropping dance numbers, blues grooves and serenades here there and everywhere. He may have got distracted at times, but more importantly, the crowd certainly did not.