There’s a girl on the front row of the Borderline -severe bob, ’50s dress, lips parted just so, and she’s praying. There’s no other word for it – real tears sparkle in the corners of her eyes as she mouths along to the words, hands clasped to her chest like she’s singing a hymn, her head is tilted back as she gazes at the stage, the look on her face isn’t just one of adoration, it’s transfixed. It’s spiritual, enraptured. But this is no church classic, it’s Speak To Me Someone, a minor indie hit from 1997.
Martin Rossiter’s fanbase may have diminished during his eight years of exile, and his days of selling out the Albert Hall as frontman of Gene – the more elegant end of British guitar bands in the late 90s – are long behind him, yet his ability to mesmerise a room remains undimmed, and his emergence from the wilderness has found a core of fans embracing his return with open arms. It helps that tonight’s show marks the launch of The Defenestration Of St Martin, a collection of elegant, voice/piano torch songs that has garnered the best reviews of his career. It’s intimate music, served well by an intimate venue. This may not be the Albert Hall, but it’s packed to the rafters, surging with good will and Martin Rossiter is marvelous.
Coming onstage to Tomorrow, from the musical Annie, it’s clear that Rossiter is well aware of the camp melodrama in his work, but once he opens his mouth it’s all business. Joined only by a pianist he opens with Three Points On a Compass; a powerful, ten minute paeon to bad fathers (“you broke our home, and I can never forgive, the only thing I got from you is my name” he purrs) that builds up to hammered, dueling pianos. That voice rolls out across the room and it’s not just the girl on the front row who is spellbound.
It’s clear Rossiter has no intention of playing to the nostalgia market, and that’s very much to his credit. There’s no Fighting Fit, no crowd pleasing covers of Town Called Malice, tonight’s setlist wisely focuses on the new album. Forays into the Gene back catalogue are restricted to sadder, more personal choices that can work on a piano and integrate seamlessly with the newies. Is It Over from 2001′s under rated Libertine especially benefits from the paired down reworking. There’s nothing here that would fit on one of those Shine compilations between Ocean Colour Scene and Shed Seven, but then anthems simply aren’t required: Rossiter’s skills for translating the personal to a room full of strangers has never left him, nor has his voice which is as rich as ever it was.
I Must Be Jesus, introduced as a “song about childhood depression” and a description of a lavish video “which will never be able to make” provides a moment of levity, and Rossiter quips between songs like an old showman, yet the presiding mood here is actually quite bleak. These are very beautiful, but equally very sad songs. The slow, yearning Where There Are Pixels is gut-wrenchingly moving, and it’s to his credit that nothing here ever becomes mawkish.
The one bone thrown to convention comes in an encore of Gene classic Olympian, and though the crowd lap it up and Rossiters voice on the closing section is extraordinary, it’s the one moment in the set that doesn’t quite sit right-the one point chosen to please the audience in attendance, and the one Gene song aired tonight that suffers slightly for the lack of a band. Of course at this end of the set it hardly matters-he’s proved his point, it feels like this one is for us, and the moment of crowd unity is probably worth the inconsistent tone. The show closes on the excellent Drop Anchor, and as the final notes fade the girl on the front row is far from alone. We’re all acolytes now.