By Jasmine Reeves

By Jasmine ReevesPhoto above of John Grant © Jasmine Reeves

John Grant

Leeds Irish Centre

23rd June 2014


John Grant brings his honesty, sadness and humour to a Leeds audience that shares in his confessional, beat-laden songs, witnessing a performance of extraordinary power.

The name was familiar, but I knew virtually nothing about John Grant until his music was introduced to me early in 2013 by the now near mythical, in some quarters, Dave Brown. Dave recommended that I purchased a mysterious sounding album entitled Pale Green Ghosts from Rough Trade Records whilst I was knocking around London for a weekend. The purchase was made and after listening to the album a couple of times to say that Pale Green Ghosts struck an emotional chord with me would be an understatement of near biblical proportions. Its brutal honesty, sadness and warm humour captivated me from the off. It was and still is easily the best album I’ve heard in many a year and since this musical epiphany I’ve ended up buying several copies of it as gifts for people including for friends as a wedding present when they married each other last November.

As with pretty much most things Icelandic the collaboration between John and Birgir Þórarinsson from the Icelandic electronic collective Gus Gus ultimately proved to be a smart move and combined with the wonderful contribution from Sinead O’Connor on several songs it garnered John a whole new fan base.

Needless to say I purchased his debut album, Queen of Denmark, from Jumbo Records in Leeds when John made an appearance there in May 2013. It was a rather cosy mid-afternoon performance although quite what some of the shoppers thought of the beautifully sung yet incredibly blue language was anyone’s guess. I must mention that John swears a lot, and I mean a lot. If you’re offended by bad language read no further than this point…

Well, after missing his most recent local shows including an apparently magical evening at the Halifax Minster I was excited to hear that John would be returning to Leeds this time playing at the much respected Leeds Irish Centre. Now, although I’ve driven past it nearly every day for the past three years I’ve never actually been to the venue. The only time I nearly went there was to see De La Soul play way back in the late 90s but on that occasion I chose instead to go and see the late great astronomer Patrick Moore at the Harrogate Theatre as it promised rock and roll tomfoolery of near galactic proportions (I can only remember that Patrick was taller than I thought he would be, wore scuffed shoes and sadly had quite a bit of dandruff on his rather broad shoulders).

The Irish Centre prides itself on being the “Premier Irish Centre in Britain”. It’s situated next to the exceptionally busy A64 York Road in what is classed as quite a socially deprived part of the city. The multifunctional venue is clearly the very heart and pride of the large Leeds Irish community and has been since the early 1970s and it has an extremely busy and eclectic calendar. It’s the place to go if you want to experience Queen and Johnny Cash tribute acts, 70s disco nights, Irish singing and dancing, fundraising events and evenings of quizzes and bingo. You’ll also find very well known international musicians and bands performing there and if you’re looking for somewhere to host your wedding then they’ll even sort that out for you. By this alone it truly is the benchmark which other venues should be measured against. And it was an added bonus that earlier in the afternoon of the 23rd June whilst I was driving along the A64 I noticed John and his band walking alongside the road heading towards town. Needless to say I found a place to park and approached John to have a chat. As I’m always a tad star-stuck whenever I meet musicians I probably came across as a pressured in speech frothing maniac but thankfully John was a gentleman and didn’t appear to be too disturbed by my good natured but erratic presentation.

Anyway, if you’re not overly familiar with the man, John Grant is from Denver Colorado. He’s a big strapping yet softly spoken fella that used to front a critically acclaimed band that probably passed you by called The Czars. John has certainly had a colourful life with his fair share of emotional and physical ups and downs. By his own admission he’s now at a place where he feels he has found his true identity and because of this has been blossoming in most, if not all, aspects of his life. Although a beardy type, a hipster he’s not. John is actually a very beautiful man indeed. Look, we all need a bit of man love in our lives whether you’re straight, gay, bi or something else. So John Grant is my bit of man love and I’m not ashamed to admit this (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have just said what I said!).

The Irish Centre was near close to being a sold out show with the wonderfully named Tara Suite hosting the entertainment for the evening, a mixed audience of ages from the quite young to the older generation and there was a definite buzz in anticipation of the evening ahead. Support was provided by the British born and now Berlin-based resident Gemma Ray. A more than accomplished singer and guitarist, Gemma created an at times brooding ambience with songs dripping with tremolo which tugged somewhat at your abdomen. Her set was mainly mid tempo in pace although a couple of numbers cranked it up a bit. Her music came across as a bridge between Mazzy Star, Ennio Morricone and Maria McKee. I’m pretty sure she’ll feature on a Quentin Tarrantino soundtrack at some point in the future.

At 21:00 prompt John and his Icelandic ensemble of musicians took to the stage to what felt like a hero’s welcome. John casually dressed in t-shirt and woolly hat, the rest of the band all looking rather dapper (is it a bit too old fashioned to describe people in 2014 as looking dapper?). Musically, it was a relaxed and somewhat understated start to the set with the gentle throbbing electronic heartbeat of You Don’t Have Too followed by Vietnam – both from the Pale Green Ghosts album.

Following on from this the band performed a startlingly beautiful Marz or as my kids call it “the ice cream song” and it hinted at an eased pace for the evening ahead which ironically enough had gone from being slightly chilled due to the overly efficient air conditioning to replicating the fierce temperature of Hades in a fairly short space of time. The temperature was turned up even further by Black Belt, with its pulsing electronic beat and sheet lightning strobing, John’s arms held aloft throughout large sections of the song as if at an 1989 old skool rave. Anyone that can utilise the word “callipygian” as John does in Black Belt is okay as far as I’m concerned and the shifting on their feet audience were clearly in agreement. The extremely heavy thumping bass during the title track from Pale Green Ghosts seriously tested the building’s engineering limits, the audience jostled along to the unusual time signature, its elongated eerie instrumental sections taking on a life of their own and, as with Black Belt, the lighting again adding something extra to the song.

John voiced his love for Leeds on several occasions during the evening; GMF was dedicated to the entire audience with John pointing at audience and band members throughout the song. No one else could possibly get away with singing a lyric such as “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet, from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet” with such a straight face. Even if you’re not a fan of cussing in songs John has somehow managed to turn it into a nouveau art form and believe me, Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts has cussing by the shed load. But it’s rather beautiful cussing all the same, if such a thing is possible.

There was friendly banter by the boat load between John and the audience; conversation flowed freely between songs covering everything from the Leeds music scene and its often overlooked influence on the rest of the music world to Woody Allen movies. Chicken Bones, requested by an audience member, was played later in the set with John commenting that they hadn’t planned on playing it and he appeared somewhat shy and nervous when he voiced “I hope you won’t hate it”. It’s a song that’s impossible to hate with its fabulous chorus of “some days are just chicken bones, you’d better fuck off now you’d better leave me alone”, its skittish melody bringing a smile to the faces of those in attendance.

Glacier  – the near 8 minute closer of Pale Green Ghosts – initially created a plaintive atmosphere that was as fragile as glass until the instrumental section that closes the song, the guitarist created a sound that was almost Hawkwind in manner – a howling and terrifying white noise, the sound of a glacier scraping across granite sped up to the speed of light. A devastating performance, the audience clearly moved by the experience and there were plenty of people stood around with tears in their eyes, the song obviously having an emotional connection with many of those in attendance.

The title track from Queen of Denmark is perhaps one of the greatest ever album closers and the song that brought the main set to an emotional climax. A haunting number punctured intermittently by his band angrily castrating their instruments to accompany John’s despair, anger and frustration at a past lover with, “why don’t you take it out on somebody else? Why don’t you bore the shit out somebody else?”

John didn’t end the evening without acknowledging his past and he performed a wonderful solo of Drug from his days fronting The Czars before bringing the evening to an end with a sparse version of Caramel. A clearly moved and enraptured audience will surely be left with memories of a gig that will last them for the rest of their lives.

You realise that with only two solo albums to his name that John Grant has already managed to create songs that should be remembered for many years to come. Any night that encompassed tears being shed, belly laughs, story telling and ABBA influenced songs that feature bucket loads of bad language sounds like the perfect night out to me and judging by the response from the audience I wasn’t alone. His music is clearly the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives in a similar way to the heavy heart on sleeve songs written by Mark Oliver Everett from Eels. When a musician is communicating from their soul and not just as a way of making a living then the reward is so much greater for the listener.

John’s deep baritone voice literally drips with sincerity and he somehow manages to transform the most despairing lyric into something that leaves you thinking that everything is going to be OK after all, no matter what the journey may entail. His own interpretation of American alternative rock meets the sound of Leeds/Sheffield circa 1983 via Reykjavik is a glorious fusion of The Human League, Soft Cell, Cabaret Voltaire and Elton John. The friends that I bought Pale Green Ghosts for as a wedding present were also in attendance and they’ve already bought tickets to see John later in the year in Manchester. Like them, and presumably many others, I’m keen to hear where John musically will go to next. John Grant, he’s like the cool non embarrassing uncle you’ve always wanted to have. There’s a bit of him in all of us, you’ve just got to look inside yourself to find it.


John Grant Web, Facebook and Twitter.

Gemma Ray WebFacebook and Twitter.

All words by Sean Hornby, find him on Twitter and his Louder Than War archive here.

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Sean Hornby is a north Leeds based nurse and music fan. His first ever gig was Carter USM at the York Barbican in 1992. His book (written under the pseudonym of John Ormond) ‘Destiny Calling: Twenty Years Living With James’ was released in 2012.


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