Gareth D. Davies visits to St. David’s Hall to watch American singer-songwriter John Grant’s final gig of the European and American legs of his world tour, promoting his latest album Love is Magic.
John Grant enters the St. David’s Hall stage to the warmest of receptions for this final gig of the European and American legs of his world tour. He is plainly dressed, sporting a baseball hat and donned in face paint; he would not look out of place hunting Elk in the Alaskan wilderness, though I doubt that would befit such a warm and tender (and bitter and humorous) soul. Grant is a unique entity, a bear of a man with a delectable resonant baritone-tuned voice and melodies that are capable of piercing and warming the listener to the core.
Grant’s opening track ‘Tempest’ was not an auspicious start to the performance and though warmly applauded, did little to arouse the auditory senses. It’s a mundane live track, heavily reliant on electronics which do little to display his wonderful vocals; perhaps my eardrums were numbed by a pre-gig playlist of avant-garde jazz from Ennio Morriconi’s 1971 ‘Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza’ (the sonic equivalent to fingernails scratching a blackboard to a backdrop of smashing bottles), a questionable choice to put it mildly. For those not familiar with Grant’s latest album Love is Magic, there are leanings towards a more experimental sound, utilising modular and analogue synthesizer to power many of his compositions. It works to an extent, but it is his balladry, relying on more traditional instrumentation which allow his rich vocal and lyricism to shine. In tonight’s performance, he flits back and forth between these contrasting sonic genres effortlessly.
What endears Grant to his audience, apart from his obvious musical talent, is his warmth and honesty. He is at ease when engaging with the audience between songs tonight or when airing his dirty laundry in his compositions. And his compositions deliver a meaty blow that hit the listener with lyrics often caustic, humorous, loving, reflective, satirical, discontented, gleeful, dark and optimistic; occasionally, all in the same song. There are cerebral quips and references to Freudian slips.
In the excellent ‘Grey tickles, Black pressure’, Grant juggles with contrasting feelings of life with HIV and seems to suggest that there is little point in seeking pity or sympathy, as he proclaims “there are children who have cancer and so all bets are off, cause I can’t compete with that”, prior to reflecting “I can’t believe I missed New York during the 1970’s, I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease”. Indeed, there is an incredible level of candour to his songs. Adding to that of course is his obvious love for what he does and his wondrous vocals and emotional and polished performance, which quickly gains momentum with the audience responding rapturously at times in this 23 song, two hour-plus set. Grant is able to succinctly lyricise life experiences including dealing with break ups, death, his HIV+ diagnosis and even suffering ailments with aging (when relating to haemorrhoid cream commercials on the TV). In ‘Smug Cunt’, he takes aim at Trump, and why not? Bigots are targeted in several of his songs, where it is clearly open season. The excellent ‘JC Hates Faggots’, swings lyrical haymakers at religious, homophobic, xenophobic, racist and misogynistic bigots.
Of the more techno based tracks, ‘Black Belt’, ‘Diet Gum’ and ‘Preppy Boy’ were marvellously memorable in a live setting. ‘Preppy Boy’ is an electro-dance-based song about John Grant tormenting the tormentors of his schooldays – humorously with overtly superficial flirtatious behaviour: “Come on now, preppy boy, if you got an opening, then I am unemployed” It gets the audience dancing in the aisles, with Grant grooving uninhibitedly around the stage.
For all that, it’s Grant’s more traditional fare with songs such as ‘TC and Honeybear’, ‘Is He Strange’, ‘Queen of Denmark’, as well as encore songs ‘Sigourney Weaver’, ‘GMF’ and ‘Marz’; stunning compositions that frame Grant’s vocals in the best of light. The highlight of the performance was the outstanding ‘Glacier’ from the Pale Green Ghosts album, where Grant is joined on stage by Cate Le Bon – it is a triumph, with a standout contribution from Le Bon and with both vocalists fusing in harmony, prior to the band rocking out through its intense outro; former ‘Banshee’ and Indie drum legend ‘Budgie’, whipping up a storm. The lyrics of ‘Glacier’ relate to the hardship of a young gay man struggling for acceptance in a Methodist family and from bullying classmates. Grant spins the positives from adversity, as this is what shapes him: “This pain, it is a glacier moving through you and carving out deep valleys, creating spectacular landscapes, and nourishing the ground; so don’t you become paralyzed with fear, when things seem particularly rough”. Its Inspirational mantra for those who experience the indignity of discrimination, bullying and harassment.
John Grant concludes the set with ‘Vietnam’, an account of a bitter break-up, accompanying himself on keyboards, it is however anti-climactic following on from the stellar songs preceding this in the encore. This choice of song also seems to surprise the band who leave the stage in haste and return for the curtain call to another standing ovation. There is no doubt that John Grant is a sublime performer. And to anyone of conflicting opinion, I’m sure that he’d repost with his lyrics from ‘GMF’: “I am the greatest motherfucker of all time, from the top of my head to the tips of the toes, on my feet, but don’t forget you could be laughing 65, 63 or 24% more of the time” Like it or not, we are in an age of media-fuelled hate, bigotry, self-serving politicians and donors, as well as the rise of the far right. The world needs John Grant more than ever, an icon of the few, for the very, very, many.
Love is Magic, John Grant’s latest album, was released in October 2018.
Gareth D. Davies is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.