One Christmas, probably close to a decade ago, I dragged my jet-lagged sisters across the wastes of London to an obscure birthday party to hear him serenade a friend. Last year when Roland was performing with Jools Holland's big band, it wasn't the orchestration or Holland's square piano playing that overheated the over 2,000-strong audience in London's historical Albert Hall. When Roland finally came onstage and began singing, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. People responded because he was emotionally compelling, and not because of any retro appeal. Push those white girl singers aside, Gift remains Britain's best soul singer.
I watched him onstage countless times when he was the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals. My front room in Handsworth, Birmingham had been one of many where the band came together before everyone moved down to London. Fast-forward almost thirty years later, Roland at 53 has presence but, more importantly, he is in full command of 'that voice' - distinctive, gravelly, and powerfully expressive. Two nights ago at the Café de Paris off Leicester Square, Roland and his six-piece band rocked the Raindance Film Festival party, his last stop on a short tour that cities up north and in the Midlands.
Recently Roland completed the screenplay 'Return to Vegas', about the comeback of a fictional eighties singer, a project Channel Four supported with research funding. Periodically over the years he has been gigging out, always with backing singers Debbie Longworth and Julie Isaacs, two members of the East London a cappella outfit, the Mint Juleps. The current line-up performed his new songs written for film. Interestingly it wasn't FYC's hit repertoire that impressed the indie movie-going crowd. 'Crushed' tells the story of the pain of betrayal; 'Prisoner' describes an ordinary man, in or out of jail, and ends with the muscular refrain, 'I am free'; and 'Around the world' is rock with psychedelic undertones. Over the years the former FYC lead singer's mix of pop and soul has deepened into a solid rich sound.
Roland has always been a hunky male singer. The new repertoire has a vibrancy and immediacy to it; these are songs that speak to 'Austerity Britain', where true love might be the only thing that matters when jobs, trust, promises, politicians and even independence referendums fail. Roland also performed a compelling unplugged voice- and guitar-only version of 'Funny How Love Is'. The over-hour long set included 'Good Thing', a FYC staple now featured on a commercial for Boots the Chemists, as well as on every loudspeaker in malls and airports across the US.
The vagaries of the music business are usually unkind to its seasoned performers. However a mature generation of singers, songwriters and musicians has quietly been performing outside of the limelight. Experience has only sharpened their sense of self and ability to move new listeners, including ones who were not even born when they first established their names.
Welcome back Roland.