1 June 2018, MTG, Napier By Jamie Macphail
Midge Marsden is as close to a household name in New Zealand as any blues musician could ever hope to be. Now into his seventies he has been blazing a trail through bar rooms and clubs for over 50 years. In 1990 he was named New Zealand Entertainer of the Year; in 2006 awarded The New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to NZ Music. That puts him in a league of his own.
On Friday night he took to the stage of the MTG Century Theatre for the opening night of the Napier Jazz 2018 festival.
“So nice to be in such civil facilities this evening” quipped Midge as he arrived on stage, quoting Tom Waits. The word ‘civil’ lingered in my mind throughout the first set and into the second. A stellar band: tight, skillful, rehearsed and with impeccable timing; Midge’s voice still having the power that it needs, with the little cracks and breaks that a well-aged bluesman needs. But where was the gusto, where was the raw, earthy passion and the gnarly growl that turns your blood to moonshine?
We got some witty banter and repartee. Chet O’Connell, on guitar, played with some Julie Andrews tunes, giving Midge, the rest of the band and us something to chortle about. But the stage lighting was white and bright and it was all feeling just a little too clean.
There were great songs: Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’, the story behind why the Midnight Special shone its light on me, ‘Parchment Farm’, with Midge masterfully juggling four different harmonicas, and my song highlight of the night: a Marsden original I’d never heard live, about his move to Raglan: “Gonna move to the country, gonna paint my letterbox blue.”
But when Midge said they’d take a break for a cup of tea, it felt that that’s just what they were going to do, pop out the back for a nice cuppa….
A couple of songs into the second set we were treated to a Gospel number, ‘It’ll Be Alright’. The lights were lowered and suddenly things shifted, as the music welled up inside Midge, as if needing to find an out, and he, beaming at the end, encouraged us – and the band as well, I reckon – to “have fun”.
Live music, for me, needn’t be about performance, about a show. I’m not looking for flawless delivery. I want to see the artists climb inside a song, own them, take them places I wasn’t expecting, to see songs expressed not just delivered. And we began to see that here, as Midge proceeded to give us some great rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly, along with a geographical tour of the blues, from the bayou porch to the Chicago tenement. We got the energy, the anguish and the fun. It came alive.
I’ve probably seen this man and his various bands twenty or thirty times across the years, in iconic rock bars like The Gluepot, The Kings Arms, our own beloved Cabana. I’ve left the dancefloor covered in sweat at the same time Midge, also drenched, has dragged his weary body offstage, totally spent. There wasn’t a lot of sweat shed in the Century last night, but it was nonetheless a great evening of music, and I’m really glad that that Gospel number came along and brought out that shining, mischievous spirit that Mr Marsden can light up a stage with.