Goodbyes can be drawn out. None more so than the arrival of Martin Rossiter’s farewell London show. The ex-Gene frontman’s final curtain call was originally set to take place in June 2020, but it shifted date – and venue – more than once, before finally settling into its final resting place at the Kentish Town Forum in November 2021. At this point, larger gigs still haven’t made a full return following months of Covid related restrictions and cancellations so, understandably, for some, this night comes with a certain amount of unease. Fortunately, Rossiter quickly puts that right, firstly with a self-curated playlist in place of a traditional support band (his choice of tunes, heavily weighted to rarer Northern Soul bangers is excellent) and then the main event.
Taking the stage at a rather early 8:30, the vocalist is bathed in blue light, and his slight figure, semi-silhouetted it seems, is greeted with a massive roar. As he launches into the voice and piano number ‘Three Points On A Compass’, the venue drops into a relative silence, with all ears on a rich vocal that’s lost none of its power over the years. In the guise of emotive torch singer, bringing forth the bitter refrain of “the only thing I got from you was this stupid name”, Rossiter lays his soul – and self – bare. This number gives him nothing to hide behind; it will not be sympathetic to any early set gremlins should they present themselves. This is pure. It’s painfully honest, too, but for those who came to hear “that” voice, it doesn’t disappoint.
A quick contrast is supplied by a full band ‘Be My Light, Be My Guide’ – the popular Gene hit from the 90s – and the band, and venue, spring into life. On the first of the night’s big singalongs, the attendant crowd quickly get what they’d hoped for, and Rossiter and his assembled musicians – all of whom appear to be under thirty – hammer through the old number with ease. The sound is clear, but the heaviness of the rhythm section is somewhat striking; an uncompromising bottom end lends the indie workout a real, chest thumping edge – as it will a few of the night’s other busier numbers. This, of course, gives something so familiar a new vitality on its very last outing. Dropping in on Gene’s twilight years, ‘Walking In The Shadows’ is rather spirited, but the night’s volume and crunch robs it of some of it’s more subtle electric piano accompaniments. It never affects the overall performance, however, since Rossiter is clearly amid an emotional outpouring, keen to take the crowd with him. Joking about how he doesn’t believe in audience participation, but “deliberately left out the word “groin”, to hear a thousand voices sing it back!” sets the tone for the occasional, unrehearsed banter that will pepper a solid show, and with ‘Save Me, I’m Yours’, flowing into a huge ‘I Must Be Jesus’ – a number that relies solely on Rossiter’s voice throughout – the crowd get more of that light and shade that always made the Rossiter/Gene back catalogue feel so rich.
Leaning on the Gene legacy once more, ‘Left For Dust’ slides into a brilliant ‘Sleep Well Tonight’ (predictably one of the night’s true highlights) with an audience in fine form. Having already said that he doesn’t believe in having an audience take over his role, there are times during the choruses of this number where the attentive crowd actually drown out Rossiter’s own efforts. A new number ‘Where The Roses Grow’ takes on an unexpectedly jazzy twist; from somewhere near the back of the venue, it sounds like an interesting direction for Martin, making the best of the quieter end of his range – understandably not quite as evident tonight – and a good showcase for the guitarist’s cleaner tones. It’s a great shame that various thoughtless gig natterers use this hushed interlude to collude with their mates – something that will become the fashion for the rest of the night’s more sedate numbers, unfortunately…
A further run of Gene songs, taking in ‘Still Can’t Find The Phone’, ‘We Could Be Kings’, ‘Something In The Water’, ‘Where Are They Now?’ and ‘Your Love, It Lies’ are more than solid; the flurry of old tunes only broken by Martin’s solo ‘No One Left To Blame’. Most of these performances work the band hard, whilst Martin’s voice holds up incredibly well. It might appear a little higher than his younger self – an unusual trait, given that so many vocalists take on a slightly darker tone in later years – but it works with the newly assembled musicians and the material itself. For those with a vantage point of a good cross section of the crowd, it’s more than entertaining to see a white haired man by the mixing desk absolutely giving his all, and a blonde lady doing a range of interpretive hand dances. ‘Where Are They Now?’, in particular, is home to a really well played guitar solo, loaded with a fiery tone and almost retro rock edginess. However, the focus is drawn away from that a little by Rossiter himself, who’s chosen to fill that moment by standing fairly rigidly, just glowering at the audience. It’s clear everyone should be watching the lad working his fretboard, but it becomes almost impossible to look away from Rossiter’s fixed, steely stare.
If the first half of the set has been good to great, the final run of numbers cements this as a great night out, with solid takes on ‘Something In The Water’ and ‘Is It Over?’, topped by a storming ‘Haunted By You’, the latter prompting some bald guys in the middle of the audience to give it the full on pogo, like they’re back at Carter USM’s final farewell. If nothing else, this shows the cross section of people Gene’s music touched over their relatively short life-span. Another definite highlight comes from a very poignant ‘For The Dead’, driven by an on point band. It’s made unforgettable on this night by the sad news that Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon has passed away – a fact still unknown, and not entirely relevant, to most of this audience, but it reinforces any feelings of the song being a paean to everyone taken before their time, and Martin’s semi-dour tones make him the ideal messenger. As with ‘Sleep Well Tonight’, the evergreen classic ‘Olympian’ absolutely raises the roof. For many performers, would provide the perfect end to a fine set, but Rossiter tempers the high emotions with the quiet ‘Drop Anchor’ (another fantastic performance marred by people who just don’t know when to keep schtum) and the expected ‘London Can You Wait’ – again, inviting the crowd to belt their lungs accordingly. Finally, taking the stage alone, Martin, a piano and a semi-mournful ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ provides some quiet, reflective closure on not only the night’s entertainment, but also a much loved career.
There’s been no ‘Fighting Fit’ this evening – something that would have been a solid addition to the set with this punchy band – no ‘Truth, Rest Your Head’ and no ‘A Car That Sped’, but it’s otherwise hard to find fault with this well curated celebration of the past. In terms of mournful majesty, it has been a reminder – if one were needed – that Martin Rossiter was always one of the indie scene’s most brilliantly introspective figures. There will be very few 40 and 50 somethings going home unhappy tonight.