John Grant – Nottingham Glee, Thursday September 8
Although John Grant is barely known in his home country – a US tour was cancelled earlier this year, due to lack of ticket sales – the critical acclaim that was justly showered upon last year’s Queen of Denmark has helped to build solid British support for his work. The night before his show at Glee, Grant had performed at a sold-out Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by Midlake, the band that collaborated with him on the album. But for the Nottingham performance, he was joined by just one other player: a fellow keyboardist, who traded places with Grant as the duo switched between piano and synthesiser.
Stripped of their lush recorded arrangements, which evoke the melodic soft-rock of Grant’s childhood in the Seventies, the songs were thrown into a merciless new light, forcing the listener to focus on their core themes: heartbreak, loss and alienation, occasionally leavened by twists of wry wit. The set began with two new compositions, which addressed different aspects of failing relationships. On You Don’t Have To, the protagonists can’t stop fighting; on Vietnam, the singer’s beloved freezes him out with lethal silences.
Grant’s imposing stature and broad physique were counterbalanced by a genial stage manner, and by the aching tenderness of his performance. The heartbreak songs which form the core of Queen of Denmark are drawn from the real-life collapse of a love affair, and Grant’s delivery drew deeply from his well of suffering. At the end of the spoken introduction to TC And Honeybear, one of the most heartbreaking songs of all, a sympathetic audience member offered a kindly intervention. (“You don’t have to play it! We don’t need to hear it!”) Declining her advice, Grant launched into a staggering rendition of the song. On record, it tells the story of a break-up without ever explaining which of the two parties represents the singer himself. In performance, this ambiguity was devastatingly resolved.
In less capable hands, the show could have become a gruelling ordeal. But this performer had far more to offer than raw pain, torn from the pages of an old diary. There were smiles, there was laughter, there were self-deprecating asides and engaging anecdotes – and there was the angry, cathartic kiss-off of the album’s concluding title track (“Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” “You’re just a sucker, but we’ll see who gets the last laugh”), in which the former lover is firmly shown the door. Blessed with a rich, sonorous baritone whose power is only hinted at on record, John Grant proved himself as an artist of rare skill, gifting us with a stunning, exceptional performance.
See also: my interview with John Grant.