Review and Photos by Paul Broome
The reversal of fortune in John Grant’s career over the last few years is one of the more remarkable tales in modern music. From thinking he would never write and perform again following the bitter break-up of his band The Czars in 2005 after several acclaimed but poorly selling albums, a ‘re-discovery’ led by the band Midlake resulted in the recording of 2010’s Queen of Denmark. The album was hailed by Mojo as the best album of that year, and introduced him to an audience far and beyond that who were aware of his previous work. And so we find ourselves in a rammed Institute Library on a Thursday night, as Grant tours new album Pale Green Ghosts.
The support act tonight has travelled from Grant’s newly adopted home of Iceland, and Ásgeir Trausti’s unique brand of emotive and introspective melodic folk (much of which is sung in his native tongue) – with its edges of gentle electronica – is the perfect curtain raiser for the night’s entertainment. Of course, since the Sugarcubes first arrived on our shores in the late 80s Iceland has developed a reputation for its unique musical exports and this 20-year old has everything to ensure he’s no exception. Arriving a little late I only managed to catch the tail end of his set, but what I heard was more than enough to pique my interest.
But of course, although he’s so self-effacing he would probably deny it, tonight belongs to one man. John Grant’s arrival on stage is met by a warm and affectionate roar from the Birmingham crowd – as he and his band open with ‘You Don’t Have To’. I’ve complained before about how audiences just seem to have no manners these days. I will never understand why someone would pay to go to a gig and then just talk all the way through it. Tonight is a pleasant surprise. This is the most respectful and thoughtful audience it’s ever been my pleasure to attend a gig with, there are times when you can literally hear a pin drop. Of course, there’s a reason for this – and that reason is John Grant’s voice. On record it is beautiful – no, it is glorious. Live it is entirely transcendental, the audience is enrapt as one in its spell. This man truly is a titan with the voice of an angel.
Not only that but he has to be one of the most down-to-Earth, funny and natural raconteurs that ever stood at the front of a stage. His anecdote about Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman has to be one of the funniest moments I’ve experienced at a gig.
The heavy use of synths and the 80s underground aura that runs throughout the new album has been dismissed by a few fans of the first album – personally I think it serves Grant perfectly (his love and knowledge of electronic music is obvious), and the live tooth-filling shaking sub-bass on tracks like ‘Black Belt’ and ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ is immensely satisfying. But the album still has its delicate moments of course, and one of those – recent single ‘GMF’ – well, that’s already a firm fan favourite.
The set list leaves nothing behind (well almost… an outing for my favourite Czars’ track ‘Drug’ would have been nice, but hey ho) – everybody gets to hear their favourite (as ‘…Marz’ is introduced I hear one woman tell her friend “I’ll probably be pregnant by the end of this song”), and the live versions of several of the tracks leave me gasping for breath. ‘Glacier’ in particular is elevated from its already heady position to a truly mammoth height – its epic vista blown sky high by the band in the stunning closing section.
As if a main set that includes every track from Pale Green Ghosts isn’t enough, Grant responds to the crowd’s requests with a five song encore that polishes off much of the Queen of Denmark playlist as well. Tears well during the renditions of ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ and ‘Caramel’ (two of the most nakedly beautiful songs ever written), and the night ends on a high with a rapturous version of ‘Chicken Bones’.
The thought that there is a very good chance that we may never have heard from John Grant again after 2005 is a truly worrying thing. His voice, his songs and his personality (and his beard) all serve to make this world a better place. I don’t care what style of music is your particular ‘bag’, there is a gaping space in every record collection for John Grant. Go fill it now.
Set List: You Don’t Have To / Vietnam / I Wanna Go To Marz / It Doesn’t Matter To Him / Pale Green Ghosts / Black Belt / Sensitive New Age Guy / Ernest Borgnine / Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore / GMF / I Hate This Town / Glacier / Queen Of Denmark
Encore: Sigourney Weaver / Where Dreams Go To Die / TC And Honeybear / Caramel / Chicken Bones
View more photos in the Flickr slideshow below: