3 Jun 2018

On the road again: Midge Marsden

From Standing Room Only, 12:40 pm on 3 June 2018

Talk of New Zealand's 'king' of the blues Midge Marsden retiring after 50 years in the business and playing thousands of concerts around the country is just a little premature.

Midge Marsden and band

Midge Marsden and band Photo: Provided

“Not in the next five minutes,” Marsden says at the prospect of retiring. He says it’s on the horizon though, after over 50 years in the business, playing thousands of concerts around the country.

“There comes a time in your life when you think, 'Well I’ve done that for a long long time and I’ve got a few other things I’d like to do.'”

Marsden promises that between now and early next year, he’ll play as many shows in as many places as possible before hanging up his performance boots. He’s viewing it as his farewell tour – 'but it doesn’t mean I’m quitting forever!”.

LISTEN: Midge Marsden live in session at RNZ 

Midge Marsden

Midge Marsden Photo: Supplied

The 71-year-old is on tour at the moment, making his way to Wellington for a gig with the Rodger Fox Big Band at the Wellington Jazz Festival.

“This is the biggest trip I’ve done in years. Three days in a row! Whoop-de-doo! … In the early days, as any musician will tell you from the 70s onwards, you’d go on the road for two or three months all the time. But those days are gone really.

“It’s just a way of easing myself out, with some dignity, rather than, ‘Oh here comes sad old Midge Marsden again dragging his sad old arse around',” he laughs heartily.  

Marsden looks back at his days of touring around the country in 'dodgy old vans'.

“There’s probably a million Toyota Hiaces that have carried musicians around for many many years – unless you were on a higher income bracket … we’re back in a Hiace rental vehicle again!”

At least Marsden gets to choose who he shares the tour van with. He’s known for playing with fine musicians who are also good company.  

“I am fortunate and privileged to have surrounded myself with wonderful musicians over the years, and this particular band I’ve got now are all just wonderful musicians, supporting me, ‘cause I’m not really a musician musician. They all read music beautifully and I can follow it all but I have to keep up!”

“And touring with them right now is fun because you don’t normally get to have leisure time that much. We’re sitting in the van, talking about all kinds of places we’ve been and the music, so the camaraderie is really really good.”

Marsden’s setlist is chosen collaboratively and includes his own originals, alongside covers from the early days of the blues.

Midge Marsden

Midge Marsden Photo: Audio Culture

He recalls how he first became acquainted with blues music, living in New Plymouth as a teenager. He and his friends would go down to the wharf, where there was a milk bar with a jukebox. The sailors would come in and play their records there in their downtime.

“So we were hearing all this magical music from all around the world, from England and America and going, ‘Wow, who’s this? What’s this?’ It took my fancy for some reason, there’s just something about that music that was never on radio here, like soul music and rhythm and blues – harmonicas and electric guitars. It evolved, for me into a lifelong hobby.”

Though he’s delved with interest into the history of blues and its lasting influence on modern music, he’s never considered himself to be a blues musician. “Rhythm and blues really is what it is, and it incorporates a lot of genres within that music.”  

Marsden remembers people saying to him that 'blues is for losers' but thinks that came from a place of ignorance about the form. It may not be a hugely popular genre in New Zealand now, but Marsden says there’s been some ‘wonderful music’ made here.

Moving to Wellington in 1965 with his band Barry and the Breakaways, Marsden found a thriving little scene, which he likens to Chicago.

“It’s produced some of the best, soulful, blues music the country’s ever had. And I think that’s just part of the way Wellington is. It was the basis for all the music I do, people like the Windy City Strugglers, and Bill Lake, who I admire hugely, Darren Watson, Bruno Lawrence and all that wonderful jazz music coming out…”

While there was a time in the 80s when touring blues musicians would pack out venues in New Zealand, Marsden says it’s a small market now.  

“As BB King once said in a conversation I had with him: 'The blues has lost its colour.’... Meaning that the biggest audience for the blues was a white audience, no matter where you go in the world.”