Sunday, May 19, 2013

CONCERT REVIEW ~ John Grant, The Junction, Cambridge

I was, once upon a time, an avid concert goer i.e. when I was much much younger. These days, the huge expense aside, I only make the effort when it's someone I have a really strong affection for. So in recent years, its been Show of Hands, Nick Cave and Sparks, that I've checked out live. I find a pop or rock live performance can be a dispiriting affair. Often the musical sharpness and fullness of sound is diminished, if not sacrificed to energy and amplification. Sometimes it becomes patently obvious that the polish a performer exuded in the studio, they're unable to reproduce on stage. Those that do pull this off are rare. One band whom I felt exceeded live the excitement of their recorded output, was Ian Dury & the Blockheads. To this elite roster of excellent live performers I must now add John Grant.

He was ably supported by the Asqeir Trausti Band, whose christian name is pronounced like Oscar I think. Who mixes electronics sparingly with acoustic songwriting. An English version of his first Icelandic album is due out soon. One of the best songs from his short set was Going Home.

John Grant's 'bear' like physiognomy. one would think would have brought out every gay bear for miles around. But Jnanasalin and I scoured the Junction but no shaven-headed,  hirsute and lumberjack shirted men were to be found. Either John Grant's music has yet to tap into this gay subculture, or more likely, that their just aren't that many 'bears' in the Cambridge area. The age of his audience ranged from mid thirties to fifties, with a few borderline pensioners. There was a broad mix of genders and cultures present, from hetro~metrosexual couples, lesbians and gay men, alone and in pairs. Amply demonstrating the broadness of his appeal.

Though his songs, draw from his own life experiences, are confessional and often 'fucking frank' it became clear in concert what a universal vein his lyrics tap into. The fact that he's faced and keeps facing up to the painful facts of his life, provides an object lesson for audience identification. His stage presence exudes a strength, that even he doesn't fully realise he has yet, because he habitually dresses it up in veneers of sensitivity and vulnerability.This explains how his vengeful defiant songs about broken relationships with men connect with women. It was noticeable that it was the women in the audience who sang the loudest during Queen of Denmark, and Greatest Mother Fucke, waving their hands and punching the air. All that was missing was cigarette lighters and we could have been at an all night vigil for Reclaim the Night. His overcoming of his own conditioning and upbringing seemingly chimes in with everyone else who has had to do the same.

At one point, during a long soul-bearing preamble about the origins of the song Glacier, some bloke shouted 'Oh get on with it' only to be collectively told to shut it by a whole section of the audience. Evidently a John Grant audience feels he needs protecting, presumably to save him from further bullying and harm. I'm not sure whether that's helpful to him, though perhaps his own self-mythologising does make him seem like someone who needs mothering. There were constantly shouts of 'We love you John' as if he needed reassuring that he actually was.

Live, one is struck once more by the power of his lyrics, the audience was so still during Glacier, everyone attentively holding their breath, whilst listening to his softly soulful and supremely expressive voice. It is as good if not better live than recorded. His current band move with ease from the electronic dance themed to the seventies styled troubadour songs. It highlights that the transition to electronica on Pale Green Ghosts, his current album, wasn't quite fully carried through. Stylistically the mode from Queen of Denmark mode kept re-erupting into the synth mix, giving the album, stylistically at least, an incomplete or uneven feeling. The consistent quality of his songwriting however is what gives everything he does cohesion, even more so live.  This man is seemingly incapable of writing a lazy or trite lyric. On songs like Greatest Mother Fucker and I hate this Town, one does sense the emergence of a new John Grant, one who is able to gently poke fun at himself, as well as sending up his former lovers

His albums might suggest he's too introspective and self-pitying, and that a live performance might be too drenched in melancholy and poor me, to be really enjoyable or life affirming. Yet life affirming and uplifting was the overall impression this intense two hour concert has left me with. 

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