Having last toured the UK in 2013 in support of the distinctly electro flavoured Pale Green Ghosts album Grant’s back this time with a modest, ahem, 34 piece orchestra in tow. It makes sense though given the lushness of that voice and the soaring songs (many of which focus on Grant’s struggles to come to terms with himself, his life and his loves) that practically cry out for the gravitas that only a full fat orchestra can really deliver. The venue’s pretty perfect too, Brum’s grand old Town Hall, a Victorian Grade I listed building that’s seen everyone from Charles Dickens to Black Sabbath do their thang (although sadly not on the same night).
By the time Grant and his band join the orchestra there’s already a lot of bodies up there. Dressed all in black he acknowledges what a huge honour it is to be playing here “in this beautiful place” and, not for the first time this evening, seems genuinely humbled by it all. It doesn’t take an expert in psychoanalysis to figure out that Grant’s music is therapy for him and performing seems to be similarly important. In fact scrap that, Grant’s shows aren’t so much a performance more a baring of the soul. Take the second verse of opening number You Don’t Have To for instance, “Remember how we used to fuck all night long? Neither do I because I always passed out. I needed lots of the booze. To handle the pain.”
Short of dropping his trousers, bending over and spreading his cheeks that’s as raw and exposed as any artist gets. Rather than music to slit wrists by though it’s all strangely soothing, mainly down to Grant’s honeyed tones which, were he to try such a thing, could probably make Sabbath’s Paranoid sound like a lullaby.
Mixing the often sparse electro sounds of Pale Green Ghosts with an orchestra is a brave thing to do but generally it works, especially when the machine generated beats give way to the lush strings. Less successful perhaps are the odd moments when the two collide, in particular this evening Vietnam seemed to suffer a little as the electronica, which on record is relatively subtle, came across as too harsh. It’s a minor quibble though and the rest of the set found the kind of harmony that Grant himself is clearly still struggling to achieve judging by new songs unveiled this evening. Geraldine saw Grant channel his inner Scott Walker, No More Tangles took inspiration from old shampoo ads to tackle that knotty subject of codependency and the “horrors of relationships”, Global Warming looked at being a middle class wanker obsessed with first world problems (MOR with attitude and the kind of witty pop that Neil Hannon specialises in) and the title of Black Blizzard alone should tell you all you need to know about its themes. Again if all this makes the night sound unbearably bleak it wasn’t...far from it. Maybe it’s the fact that Grant’s survived, thrived even, despite the years of addiction, failed relationships and HIV diagnosis, that still makes the whole thing so uplifting, that old ‘triumph of the human spirit’ thing (in fact one of tonight’s audience called Grant’s music “aural Prozac” on Facebook, which is as good a description as you’re likely to hear). Stop peering beneath the surface for meaning though and some of Grant’s best tracks are just great songs. Marz gets an early airing and it’s evocation of one of Grant’s boyhood haunts, a sweet shop run by the Marzita family (hence the spelling) underpinned by some simple piano and that voice of his, is every bit as soft and warming as the butterscotch mentioned in the lyrics.
Utterly sublime. Later on Pale Green Ghosts got the kind of grand orchestral build up normally reserved for the opening sequence of a Bond movie but hell, if you got a 34 piece orchestra at your disposal make the most of it eh? GMF also benefitted from having all those bods on stage making it even better than the recorded version...by at least 65%.
After a bombastic Queen of Denmark and it’s polar opposite, Glacier, the spotlights framing the stage flickered and died as Grant left the stage to a pretty much universal standing ovation, returning for the cod German electro-disco of That’s The Good News. It’s a bit of an oddity in Grant’s discography but after appearing on a deluxe edition of Queen of Denmark in retrospect it clearly hinted at his new electro direction. Who knows, maybe there’s a full on OTT disco album in there somewhere, Nile Rodgers and John Grant...now there’s a hook up the world could do with. Good times indeed.
Mindful of the old adage of saving the best for last though the night ends with Caramel, with Grant seated at the piano and at his most soulful it’s a song that sums up the perfect love he’s spent his days searching for.
As he sings the last lines of the evening “...and my soul takes flight” looking round it’s clear that many of those lucky enough to be here felt the same way. Truly beautiful stuff from one of the greatest mother fuckers in music right now.