When I first heard Gene, it was 1995, and I was a senior in high school. “Sleep Well Tonight”—as far as I know, the only song that got any airplay in the US—was a regular staple on my local college radio station, and I picked up Olympian used at CD resale shop not too far from campus. My Anglophilia was nascent, but growing, and I voraciously purchased anything where the lead singer had even a slight cockney. (Still do). And oh, what a boon Olympian was. Martin Rossiter’s mellifluous vocals nestled into the crannies my psyche and stuck sweetly there, like a kind of aural honey; their rollicking brand of brash yet benevolent Britpop electrified my muscles and stealthily stole my heart. In my mind, Gene were poised to take on the world—and I was readied to assume the presidency of their Lansing, Michigan fan club.
18 Sep 2002: Maxwell's Hoboken, New Jersey
Alas, none of that ever happened. Gene were lambasted early on in the UK music press for trying too hard to mimic the Smiths; here in the States, they were cast off as nothing more than one of those British bands coming in at low tide before the monstrous wave of Oasis came crashing in. In 1997, I ran out and bought their release Drawn to the Deep End, but even the other Britpop fiends I knew could care less that “Gene who?” had released another record. Alas, without camaraderie, Gene was destined to remain my own, personal fetish—an odd fate for a band which I to this day consider to have all the trappings of Britpop legendaries.
So at the tiny Maxwell’s in Hoboken, beyond the natural high of seeing the Londoners for the first time in action was another added bonus: finally being among a significant enclave of other Gene die-harders. For could a band like Gene really have casual fans? Gene are one of those groups that it took effort to follow and wherewithal to know—and if music is a unifying force, goddammit these concertfolk were damned if they weren’t my brethren. Believe you me, when it comes to live performances, there’s nothing like standing in the company of other true believers, getting the Ghost thank to sweet gospel from the Man In Charge. They don’t call rock & roll the church for nothing.
And the Gene clan—Steve Mason on guitar, Kevin Miles on bass, Matt James on drums, a guest named Angie on keyboards and the irreplaceable Martin Rossiter singing away—certainly played like they wanted to deliver us. Rossiter, devilishly clever and handsome to boot, keyed up the theatrics from the get go, already standing on the speakers and posturing pompously by the night’s first number, “Haunted By You” off Olympian. On stage, he’s the jester to his band mates courtly posture, unafraid to play himself the fool or get a bit naughty in order to rile the crowd. “I’m going to use my tongue on all of you later!” he threatened, exposing it in all its pink glory, before charging into “The British Disease”, from the band’s 1999 Revelations. Everything about Rossiter was over the top—the drama of his singing, the countenances and gesticulations - and in tandem with his mostly stationary band mates, it’s truly a thrill to watch. But listening is even better. Live, their sound is honed and studio-ready, while maintaining a dynamism that responded to the cues they were giving one another. During “From Georgia to Osaka”, off 2002 Libertine, the twangy yet soulful guitar work of Mason played coyly off the sensual singing style Rossiter invoked; a brighter track like “We Could Be Kings” found the musicians shimmering and high-flying to the highs and lows of Rossiter’s crooning.
But the crowd were just plain lacking. The energy Rossiter emanated from the stage simply petered out once it got to the audience; all around me, though nearly everyone was singing along to Gene classics, no one was giving Rossiter what he needed to feel as if his stage antics had a point. While such soberness may have made sense on the melancholy fare which Gene are loved for—like “Speak to Me Someone” or “Long Sleeves For the Summer”, which they played for the first time on this tour at this show—when the energy level went up, the crowd stayed totally flaccid. Eventually, the audience’s lack of animation seemed to take the wind out of even Martin Rossiter’s overpuffed sails. Though it never soured their sound—songs like “A Car That Sped” and “Where Are They Now” coursed through my veins in a wild sensory rush—the accoutrements slowly started fading as the show went on. Fewer jokes cracked between songs, less screwball movements—the whole thing deflated with the sad sinking of a falling helium balloon. Newer material had an even rougher go than the better known numbers; though Libertine came out here in August, it was obvious that much of the crowd had not heard it, thus rendering their responses practically moribund. By the show’s end, every attempt to get the crowd to do anything besides clap politely was a sad and sorry exercise.
I have a theory to explain what may have happened, and I won’t go the cheap route of dissing New Jersey to do it. (Come on, most of the people at Maxwell’s came over from Manhattan on the PATH train, anyway.) When you’ve spent so long listening to a band in private—sequestered away, with little resonance to your fandom—translating the experience into the public sphere might prove an utter impossibility. And since Gene do slow and solemn as definitively as they do raw and pop-rocky, it’s possible that there was simply a chasm between the Gene that took the stage and the one that the audience came to see. The bands we listen to in our darkest moments aren’t supposed to have fun—just like Morrissey isn’t supposed to have sex, right? And while Morrissey might be content to allow form to follow content, Gene aren’t afraid—dare I say, they’re downright proud—to show their many faces, dependent on context.