Given that this is the third time (in five months – count them) TMB has managed to catch Matt Maltese live, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this review would read as a lethargic, bored elegy to his live show. In reality, his performance is as captivating as every time before and is taken to higher levels by the addition of a special guest.
Billed as an acoustic set, it’s slightly surprising to find support band Sorry seated with a pair of electric guitars, but compared to the carnage they unleash as a four piece, Louis O’Bryen and Asha Lorenz sound almost angelic. Without their rhythm section, the songwriting is truly put on trial and the lyrics, so often lost in heavy distortion, reveal the oft-missed tenderness at the heart of the tracks. Lorenz’ vocals, usually found lurching into animalistic screams, are more restrained, with only hints to the pain which regularly paints her performance. Whilst perhaps not the best introduction to the band, it’s a pleasant opening to the evening and effortlessly disproves anyone disputing the newcomers’ talent.
Tonight almost feels spiritual – to reach Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club fittingly seemed a pilgrimage. Set in front of an illuminated, bright pink heart surely nabbed from a Tunnel of Love a couple of decades ago, the evening borders on too perfect. The theatricality of the music paired with the ridiculous stage set-up risks feeling staged, torn directly from a romantic comedy. When the man himself creeps onstage in a brown corduroy suit, however, Maltese proves himself more than adept at welcoming an audience. It takes a few minutes before the audience hush themselves into an intense silence but it remains unbroken for the rest of the night, bar a few amusing heckles.
As a performer, he does not demand attention. He is meek and sometimes awkward with stage patter. Instead, the charm and beauty of his songs, the elegance to his note-perfect performances invite interest with such insistence that it’s hard to turn them down. Beginning ‘Vacant in the 21st Century’ with his head resting lazily on his hand, themes of boredom and self-directed frustration regarding political ignorance or inability to make a difference are frequently visited. Such heavy topics are handled with deft wit and skilfully avoid sounding preachy – the audience regularly sniggers at his lyrics, but never sigh or cringe in embarrassment. Even when he finally fully gives over to his humorous side with an ode to Tesco (‘the one thing that never changes’), it’s cast against the tumultuous tide of Brexit and takes on a gravity of its own.
For his last two songs, he calls to the stage his recent producer, Hugo White, to assist on electric guitar. While Maltese alone has been deliciously bewitching up until this point, the addition of another takes the set beyond anything that has come before. Joking about work drying up recently for White following the dissolution of the Maccabees, the duo move onto ‘No-one Won the War’, the distorted guitar acting as both percussion and another textured layer. Maltese apologises that the lights should come down and he should leave the stage but with an encore inevitable, everyone acknowledges it’d be overkill. Ending with the dramatic finale of ‘As The World Caves In’, artists and applause crescendo in parallel and signal the end of another successful evening. Maltese and White exit the stage to separate sides, their jobs done. The audience leave slowly, just as jubilant.