May 3rd, 2013
Alternative electro-folker John Grant bares his heart and soul on his new album, and live on the famed Vicar Street stage. Ray Burke was there.
John Grant‘s ‘Queen of Denmark’ went beyond the autobiographical, as desolately honest and as revelatory as a recorded psychiatrist session. Lauded as a masterpiece by critics and fans, with it, he gained an audience that evaded previous musical venture The Czars. He communicated years of homosexual guilt due to a repressed upbringing, depression and self loathing, and drug and alcohol abuse that led to a hiatus from music. The positive reaction seemed to herald a new beginning, until the devastating news last year that he had contracted HIV. The anger and then reconciliation of that time is explored in his sophomore solo release, ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. The confessional lyrics remain, but where ‘Queen of Denmark’ was influenced by the 70s soft rock of his childhood, on ‘Pale Green Ghosts‘ he revisits the electronic music of his adolescence. He returns to Dublin tonight for his first post new album show.
Impressed by a two song set at the IMRO venue awards, I was eager to catch opening act Liza Flume. She appears on stage, an elegant solitary figure, which suits her delicate approach to her simple but affecting songs. Unassuming she looks like she could have walked off the set of a 90s American Independent film. Her voice recalls some of those female alternative acts of that were the soundtrack with a more contemporary edge.
The crowd are quickly attentive and there is complete silence for her delicate and effective songs. She’s not hindered by forgoing assistance; demonstrating a mastery over loop pedals, experimenting with guitar, voice, and percussion to build atmosphere and elaborate sounds. Rarely an artist that covers the material of others (sic), she treats us to a Robyn cover. Unfamiliar to these ears, it’s upbeat yet slightly haunting. It inspires a youtube search for the original. Liza’s considered harmony driven version is better. The crowd start to eagerly filter in as she is playing, and by the time she plays single ‘What We Call Love’ she has the audience in her palms. It’s an impressive short and sweet set that that motivates further investigation of the artist. Liza Flume appears to be on the cusp of something big, deservedly so it would seem.
Tonight’s gig begins with the band gradually appearing on stage, the anticipation evident in the enthusiastic encouragement for each individual member as they take their place. When John Grant finally takes the stage, the near capacity crowd erupt with a cheer of genuine affection. Sound problems pop up occasionally through the set, and a mic problem means a prolonged musical intro and delayed start, both John and crowd thankfully see the funny side. When Grant eventually delivers the first lines of ‘You Don’t Have To’, the audience is ecstatic. The mainly Icelandic musicians that realise his retro synth pop vision live are a flawless powerful presence. The venue rumbles with intense electronic beats, pulsating and ruminating through the bodies and furnishings.
The band is introduced early, John masterfully pronouncing their Icelandic names. His move to there was motivated in part by a desire to master the “difficult” language. Judging by his learned pronunciation he’s making progress. The biggest cheer comes for third song, the surreal and seductive ‘Marz’, which might suggest a preference for ‘Queen of Denmark’ material were it not followed by the title track of the new album. The reaction is as positive to the instantly recognisable electro-beat of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. It permeates through the venue, and pockets of people are off their seat and dancing. His love of eighties music is discussed, the influence of Cabaret Voltaire and the fact that he’d “put a synthesizer solo on his corn flakes in the morning” if he could. That love is further demonstrated in new tracks ‘Vietnam’, ‘Blackbelt’ and the fantastic ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’.
On stage conversation is as revealing and emotionally charged as his lyrics, and although he relays some genuinely upsetting autobiographical tales, like his written words, there is much humour. Grant has been through the wringer, but divulges personal tales in a heart-warming way that transcends the hardships he has endured. He is candid about his diagnosis, and hilarious in his introduction to ‘Ernest Borginine’, a song that acknowledges his illness. It’s contemplative but jolts you from any kind of sentimental saturation with brutally honest admissions, a common thread through his work.
‘Sinead O’ Connor’s guest appearance seemed a certainty. The pair become quick friends after her astounding version of ‘Queen of Denmark’. She subsequently sang backing vocals on several tracks on the new album. Grant can’t conceal his affection for her and likewise Sinead for him. She joins him for ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’ and ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’, the latter a perfect example of the texture and layers provided by her voice. Her ghostly waling is perfectly juxtaposed against John’s distinctive soft baritone. She recently reverted to her iconic shaved head look, and appears relaxed looking more like her young self than the tabloid fodder of last year. When she briefly fluffs a line, she appears embarrassed and coy. Grant embraces her and they dance, her feet resting on his, enhancing the intimacy of the occasion. Kindred souls, they share much in common. Both are immense talents, at times shy and self depreciating, but always refreshingly honest.
‘I Hate This Town’ is as the title suggest vitriolic in its anger. It could have been written about lots of towns, but of course has very little to do with a place. ‘Glacier’ is poignant and gently uplifting, facilitated by Sinead’s compelling addition, likewise on album favourite ‘GMF’.
It’s wish fulfillment time when ‘Queen of Denmark’ is introduced. The pair sing it as a duet and it makes for one of those magical moments when you praise the gig gods that you are here to witness it. Singing about wanting to use someone for sex has never sounded so beautiful. Sinead can appear vulnerable on stage, with her slight and elegant demeanour, gently pacing back and forth from the mic, but when she unleashes the full strength of her voice, she is defiant strength personified, a visceral tingle covers the body as she sings, “Why don’t you take it out on someone else, why don’t you bore the shit out of someone else.”
It closes the set and they leave to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. It’s unfortunate for those you won’t get to see the songs performed with Sinead. Her wonderful otherworldly additions to songs of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ are beautifully realised here, even if they were hindered at first by a low mic.
The spectacular encore features three ‘Queen of Denmark’ tracks, the empathetic and celestial ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’, reminiscing heartbreak and loss on ‘TC and Honeybear’ and finally the enchanting and emotionally elicit ‘Caramel’ where the crowd accompany his astonishing distinctive soulful voice in soft adoration. You can literally see light reflected off tears on people’s faces. As the band take their final bow, the audience ore on their feet in shared euphoria.
Live, Grant is an emotional and engaging experience, for fans of his albums, that won’t be a surprise, but that level of engagement is heightened by his forthcoming honesty between songs as well as his revealing confessional lyrics. The performance is absolutely revelatory and resonates long into the night. Through his passionate openness Grant transports you to a place where painful lessons manifest in strength and optimism. It would be wonderful to be as moved by every gig, a joyous, emotive and satisfying encounter with a truly exceptional artist.
Words by Ray Burke. More writing by Ray on Louder Than War can be found here.