John Grant, Cambridge Junction, 18 May 2013

JohnGrant1The omens weren’t too great for this gig: I’d come under sudden attack from a heavy cold and had spent the last 24 years streaming and snuffling, and more seriously a couple of nights before somebody had stolen John Grant’s laptop (“my whole life is on there!”) from the stage where he’d been playing in Brighton. Surely one or the other of us weren’t going to make it tonight.

In the event both of us do turn up, and within seconds of the bear-like Grant stepping out on stage and starting a pristine and beautiful version of the plaintive You Don’t Have To I’ve forgotten all about my maladies – it’s obvious straight away that this performance is going to be several cuts above the normal ear-straining distortion-ridden Junction experience. Grant trades in laceratingly confessional, angry and self-loathing lyrics that deconstruct his various failed relationships and issues with homophobia and callous pigeon-holing with wit and venom, but musically he’s miles away from the one-dimensional feedback fury that’s the standard accompaniment for such sentiments, preferring to wed his acrid verses to sumptuous 70s soft rock or eerie and austere electro-dance beats. But he wouldn’t be getting the rapturous reception he receives tonight for his words alone – while he’s undoubtedly a formidably talented and wickedly funny lyricist his real strong suit is his rich and powerful but also vulnerable baritone and the gorgeous melodies he composes for it, and thankfully whoever’s supervising the sound mix appreciates this. His band, made up mainly of musicians from Iceland which is where he currently lives, is supple and technically flawless but a few tinkly piano figures apart is very much in the background: Grant’s superb vocals dominate the sound in a way I’ve rarely come across at a rock concert. And he doesn’t confine himself purely to the microphone, taking regular sorties to a spare keyboard to play some fills that bring the word “Moog” irresistibly to mind.

Set-wise, the songs are drawn almost entirely from Grant’s two solo albums, with the recent Pale Green Ghosts eventually being rendered in its entirety. He cannily frontloads the session with the moodier, less immediately accessible tracks  like It Doesn’t Matter To Him and Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore but takes the trouble to introduce and place the songs in context and indulge in some very funny anecdotes and some good-natured to-and-froing banter with the audience. He seems remarkably relaxed and convivial given the painful nature of the material (he even laughs off the laptop theft), and the evening flies by. Eventually we get to the poppier stuff – the insanely catchy GMF which would be a surefire radio hit if it wasn’t for that problematic F in the chorus, the similarly jaunty and similarly vitriolic I Hate This Town – before Grant ends the set with the magisterial double-header of Glacier and Queen Of Denmark, both of which start like sensitive ballads before crunchy sledgehammer blows of electric guitar convert them into searing roars of anguish. The crowd goes wild, and we get an extended encore that takes in the funky Chicken Bones, the yearning Sigourney Weaver and the heartbreaking Where Dreams Go To Die from his first album before the evening ends with Grant alone on stage, providing his own delicate piano accompaniment for the fragile and beautiful Caramel. This will almost certainly be the best thing I see this year, and I didn’t think about my cold or who might be winning Eurovision once.

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