Roland really is the Gift that keeps on giving

Rold Gift at the Hare and Hounds

Rold Gift at the Hare and Hounds

First published in NewsXtra
Last updated

You can have too much of a Good Thing, writes Steve Zacharanda

But despite listening to the Fine Young Cannibals on cassette/CD/YouTube/Spotify for the last 25 years I could not miss their mercurial lead singer Roland Gift live.

The Raw and the Cooked, along with LL Cool J's Walking With a Panther, were the seminal albums of my youth. I know how much I loved them because I bought both cassettes three times because I wore them out.

Alexander O'Neal was a big deal for a while too but I saw him live ten years back and it broke my heart. When the high notes came he was a fake and put the microphone towards the audience. He deserved to be criticised. Yeah that old trick. What would Roland Gift's incredible voice be like after all these years out of the limelight?

Well after his first song Tell Me What You Mean it was hard to tell as he was a little preoccupied with the acoustics and sauna like conditions. But then, the former Blue Kitchen punk rocker asked the audience if they liked punk, many did and he smiled and launched into Ever Fallen In Love – a reggae version.

Bang. The slowed down reggae's start to the Buzzcocks classic worked. Then came the incredible sounding reverb guitar followed by Roland hitting the high notes. And he went for it. No holding back and his god's gift, his voice was there backing his balls up. The arrangement might have been different to FYC's famous version but his voice sounded the same.

It was going to be a brilliant gig from that moment. He asked for a pint, due to the heat and again I couldn't help but smile and think “thank god he's not an alcoholic.”

After all those few human beings whose fame bends the arc of show business super stardom often become casualties of their own success.

Not Roland (who sings about drinking so painfully in some of his biggest hits), and it is easy to forget the Fine Young Cannibals were huge. In America. And that is about as big as it gets. He was on the cover of the Rolling Stone. In 1989 they sold more records than almost anyone on the planet. The Raw and The Cooked spent three months at Number 1 in America. It was them and Guns and Roses vying to be the biggest band in the world. Three Brummies against Axel and Slash. Would you pay to see Axel Rose now? His vocal chords are shot and you'd have to wait three hours for him to turn up to remind you he is crap anyway.

But there was Roland Gift, in the sold out sweaty upstairs room of the Hare and Hounds, down the road from where he grew up rolling back the years besting falsettos one minute and singing with real venom the next.

Jagger, he can sing with spite, and Gift has that same talent. A million singers can sing with love, with passion, with a way that makes you ache for the good things love can bring. And other singers can sing with pain, as if they have just seen their beloved run over by a Skoda estate when trying to save the family pet.

Very few can pull off singing with spite. Watching Gift perform his lyrics is like getting a sneak peak at one side of a couple's argument. You know the kind, when two people love each other and it all comes out. Sometimes you might overhear one in a Northern Wetherspoons and fear it will lead to a cheap ashtray smashed over one of the lovers' heads, you look the other way but can't help keeping your ears open.

I knew the 53-year-old had a lot in his locker when he played Johnny (Come Home) so early in his set. The song that propelled him into the limelight in the 1980s wearing a faded green sweatshirt in a studio.

His passion there to see. He sounded sorry. A bloke in the audience told me he knew what the song was written about but could not tell me. Thanks pal. It doesn't matter, it could be about abuse or neglect, forgetfulness, drugs or viciousness, all that matters is when Roland sings that song you believe he is sorry. He sings like he is in a hell of his own making. His stagecraft sees him contort his body into desperate poses. It is impossible to take your eyes off him.

And then the song ends and cracks a joke, reveals a smile. Like it is all an act, which of course it is. He was obviously enjoying himself and was getting to know his band who he has only started playing recently.

He had Dave on lead guitar and Yolanda Charles on bass. A six foot darling who Prince has probably got his eye on by now. The two backing singers were great too, it appears they were originally with FYC in the old days but now run a successful painting and decorating business in London. Who needs Pepsi and Shirley when Pollyfilla and Wallop can do the job.

Weaving in songs from his 2002 solo album Roland Gift like It's Only Money and FYC classics like Good Thing he kept the crowd onside. His new Return to Vegas stuff is soulful, powerful storytelling songs which were an enticing taster for the soundtrack of the film of the same name.

The scream to the ceiling moment came when those unmistakable first few chords of Suspicious Minds started up. It took balls to cover Elvis' most unmistakable it in the first place. But with a gold suit and leg bending guitarists FYC pulled it off in the 80s for MTV screens. But to hear it live was fantastic. The crowd were going bonkers, Roland tried to hold the gaze of an audience member ala Elvis but couldn't help but laugh and the song went on for what seemed a joyous age.

Friends were back slapping friends, husbands were kissing wives and strangers were singing to each other, it was sublime. The band really let lose too which was fun to see.

Talking of the audience, I thought I was a big Roland Gift fan but as in life there is always someone bigger than you. Paul had come from Wellingborough in t-shirt emblazoned with Roland's face. He loves Gift, his songs “describe” his life, and then he introduced me to his wife. He had seethed at Gift for taking a part in Heartbeat but all was forgiven shortly after. At the front there was a threatened tet-a-tet with another avowed “Gifter”. A striking blonde with a bow in her hair who was with her mother who'd admonished her for scribbling on the Raw and the Cooked vinyl album back in 1989. It all threatened to get out of hand but the next time I looked they were all hugging and singing lyrics arm in arm and gazing up at the stage in common adulation. Roland makes peace.

As a younger man I might have got involved in the argument but I'm Not The Man I Used To Be. Who is. Roland is not. And the live version of that incredible song was not met with the euphoria I expected but it was was a gutsy retelling of a drum machine dance music classic. And again, Gift's implored performance of self-loathing lyrics was spot on. What a tune, ahead of its time musically and criminally underrated.

The Prisoner followed, and then in keeping with the intimate feel of the gig the band pretended to hide from the audience as they could not leave the stage to return. A two song encore followed.

The gig ended with a pitch perfect version of Blue, perhaps one of the greatest ever songs written about depression, if it is about that and not a moody BCFC female fan that Roland had got lumbered with.

Blue, like so much of Gift's work combines melancholy lyrics with upbeat soulful music which leaves a smile on the face and impression on the heart.

He got mobbed as he left the stage. And so he should.

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