F.Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but it seems nobody has told John Grant. When his old band, The Czars, broke up after 5 albums and few sales, the classically-trained pianist and singer descended into a mire of drugs and sex with the wrong men (although the heartbreak caused has provided material for several really great songs). Midlake then rescued him, playing on his first solo album, Queen of Denmark, in 2010 and then taking him on tour as their support, which was the last time he played Sheffield (the Leadmill).
Six years and two more albums later (Pale Green Ghosts and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure) Grant was back in what he referred to as “the centre of the fucking universe” music-wise, playing a sold out date at the Octagon. The none-less-teenage audience warmed to the support act, Icelandic singer Sóley Stefánsdóttir, (Grant now lives in Iceland) who rocked the geography teacher look and crafted loops Sieben-style with her voice as a bed for singing over with the piano. The audience really took to the performance of this hitherto unknown artist.
John Grant was heralded onstage by the jarring multi-voice spoken word ode to love that opens the new album (from which this set drew heavily). Backing him was an uber-able quartet of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums (played by the legendary ex-Banshee Budgie, who at 57 can still out-hit most of the competition). Often he would play along with his keyboard player, either at the same set up or on a tiny kit at the front.
Musically it was all over the place. Many songs seemed to make more sense live, which is odd because plenty of the new ones are way more experimental than the early piano-centred ballads he played like Marz and The Czars’ Drug that are easier to make work in a live setting. Some (Pale Green Ghosts, Slug Snacks and You And Him) showed the love for some musical heroes (Cabaret Voltaire, Human League) and others, like Guess How I Know were straight-ahead bass and drum freak-outs. Highlights included Glacier, which live is rarely played with an orchestra (as per Pale Green Ghosts) but benefits from the big rock backing that made it even more powerful, and Queen of Denmark, the angry and funny riposte to an ex-lover on which he went silent right on the last line, just knowing that the audience, singing along, would carry it – a nicely inclusive touch, even if none of us has his dulcet baritone voice.
There was even an appearance from Richard Hawley on GMF and Disappointed. Lyrically, he is still concerned with the big themes of love and loss but also with pleas to his audience to live as you see fit not as others say. As he approaches fifty, there is also a growing awareness of his own mortality (grey tickles is Icelandic for mid-life crisis) and he recently announced he is HIV+, which is tackled in that song (“there are children who have cancer…I can’t compete with that”). This is ironic, given that only now does he have both critical and commercial success and an adoring fan-base. It is hoped that he long enjoys his life’s second act.
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