Friday, February 05, 2016

CONCERT REVIEW ~ John Grant

Cambridge Corn Exchange 3rd February 2016

It's a testament to how John Grant's popularity is growing that he now performs at the Corn Exchange rather than the smaller more intimate Junction, the last time he was here.. The sound balance and quality was better there, but what you lose in subtlety you gain in sheer whoomf. The band has a considerably meatier sound and percussive punch, no doubt partly as a consequence of the venerable Budgie ( The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees ) now thwacking away in his own idiosyncratic, but highly effective style.





















Its not just the band that's different, the John Grant we saw last night appeared a much transformed man from the guy who performed here three years ago. Then, his self consciousness and fluctuating confidence was quite noticeable and the audience picking up on it yelled words of love and encouragement at him constantly. There was very little of that last night, he appeared a much more assured, relaxed and substantial performer. Physically his body is less flabby and more beefy. He even remarked about going for a run around Cambridge before the gig! He actually looks happy, jokes around and beams all the time, boogies along with his band 'shaking that ass' with an abandon and lack of inhibition. He's enjoying himself and one can only feel heartened and rather chuffed for him, No doubt the new boyfriend could be one catalyst for this much improved self esteem. But, when you hear the spectrum of styles and types of songs on display here you have to say this is an impressive range. After three successful albums and many critical accolades and plaudits, he ought to feel justifiably proud of it and simply 'flaunt it girl', and tonight he does.

Half the set was comprised of tracks from the new album Grey Tickles and Black Pressure. On CD it seemed a good but perhaps not outstanding record, with not quite so many stand out tracks as on Pale Green Ghosts. However, these new tracks really blossom and come more convincingly into there own live. Snug Slacks, Voodoo Doll, Disappointing and You and Him are given extra heft and muscularity, they're so much more funky and heavy. Older tracks are scattered around the set, the obligatory Queen of Denmark, which he can sing again and again and again as far as I'm concerned, I love it. Its one of his trademark barbed satirical songs, wryly witty, written as some sort of payback towards an old lover.




His more straightforwardly uncomplicated songs such as Glacier and the old Czar's song Drug are almost perfectly constructed. Even when writing a more traditional love song Grant appears incapable of writing a trite or clich├ęd lyric, at least not without an ironic twist. Often these songs reveal there true beauty when unadorned by strings or other arrangements. The final encores tonight were devoted to love songs that Grant accompanies himself on the piano, and leaves just the richness of his voice to embellish them. Yes, that voice, it is a wonder to behold in concert. There is never any sense of strain there, from the depths to the top edge of his register its all reached quite effortlessly. Some singers when you hear them live you realise haven't quite got the vocal strength, outside of a studio, to maintain their range live, their voices start to become unsustainable, to crack or squeek. Grant is solidly on the note pretty much all the time.




 Grant's popularity may grow so he can no longer play places like Cambridge, and that'll be a sad day. There is a loss the bigger the venue, and his songs are so honest and self revealing that in his case the lack of intimacy might not be to anyone's benefit.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DIARY 134 ~ He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips















I'd been away on solitary for two weeks, spending time getting a clearer sense of who I am, how I have been, where I want to be, and what I want to do with the rest of my life, however short or longer the term that rest of my life turns out to be. I had made some intentions for how I wanted to manage my re-entry, but these have been somewhat blown out of the water by discovering Bowie had died whilst I was away. So over the last few days I've been catching up with the rest of you who are twelve days or so ahead of me. Emotionally, its contributed to making my re-entry bumpier and more complex than I'd expected. So being careful about managing my reconnection with the world, to chill a bit, and prepare to roll out some of the things I'd thought about on retreat, have not I sense been trashed, but are perhaps delayed.

Its taken a bit of time to really sink in why Bowie's death seems significant, not just for me, but for countless others of mine, and succeeding, generations. It is obviously a grieving and mourning process of sorts. It feels oddly true, whilst also a bit melodramatic, to say a part of what I aspired to be, or be like, has died on the 10th of Januarey 2016. There's failed dreams and regrets in there,for things he and I will never now do.



Few have been able to maintain both the intensity and longevity of innovative music making, that he did during his peak period of creativity which lasted over ten years. For one of his contemporaries, Marc Bolan his lasted barely two years and had been universally confirmed as moribund four years before his actual demise in a car crash. Those who've blatantly begged borrowed and stole from Bowie's back catalogue of styles and presentation, like Gary Numan and countless New Romantics, their careers have crashed or live on only on the nostalgia circuit, or through tribute bands. Though able to replicate, none have equalled, let alone exceeded Bowie's breadth of influence, that helped change social attitudes to sexual preference, and difference in general, whilst simultaneously altering and extending the language and definition of what popular culture was capable of. This was a much wider range than you might have thought a mere pop star, however prodigiously talented, ought to have had. He had a retrospective of just his stage costumes for goodness sake!

Sexually ambiguous, he formed himself into this exotic peacock, a role model for those, like myself, who wondered whether to express these transgressive feelings we had, and he demonstrated we must and they were more than OK, His stance encouraged people to liberate from hiding or feeling imprisoned behind conventional sexual and gender norms, His songs often have subversive irony underpinning them, such as on Boys Keep Swinging, which might appear a laddish chant of the virtues of being the conventional male. If there was any doubt about the parody being presented here, then you only need view the video. At the end, three 'female figures' step forward rip off their wigs, reveal themselves as Him, and dramatically smear their lipstick. He learnt that swaggery posturing expression of defiance and nerve whilst training with Lindsey Kemp. I was giddy with glee when I first saw it.



He was an extremely clever and articulate song writer, often opaque in meaning, but true in feeling, able to cross a wide range of styles and subject matter. From unconventional but touching songs like Life on Mars to an instrumental apparently cross referencing Kraftwerk and Nazi doodle bombs - V2-Schneider. A boundless curiosity and fascination with whatever he came across meant he was rarely short of fertile new creative territory to explore. Musically it usually came embellished with a quirky off kilter edge, tinged with danger coming out of darker seamier shadows, in the form of the high pitched squealing of a deranged guitar, such as on Cracked Actor.



In that post sixties withdrawl period from dreamy optimism, the early seventies were years uniquely dull and overcast with gloom. Bowie shone a light into its hidden nooks and crannies and said 'look at this, and this, wouldn't you want to be more like this, or this', and we followed him like thirsty puppy dogs through all those metamorphoses, and inhabited them through him. A magpie, artistically, he knew a great idea when he saw one, his voracious pursuit of the new was ever shifting and polymorphous. All of this done with the most immaculate sense of personal style and panache you could think of. Bowie at his peak never appeared anything less than self-assured, the very epitome of what cool could be.

His recent creative re-emergence out of his so called ;retirement' with the exhibition, the album The Next Day, the musical Lazarus, and now Blackstar, could appear to be part of a Bowie plan to stage manage how his legacy and reputation would survive his demise. What was it that woke him up after ten years of silence? Has he known for quite a while that his health was on a slippery and increasingly acute slope? The videos that accompany Blackstar and Lazarus, are, in retrospect, so infused with a sense of his future demise, it seems strange we took them as simply Bowie play acting another character. It appears he never was just performing, but also revealing something personal through the guise of an image. For Bowie was it ever thus. I can't now watch the video for Where are we now, without feeling overwhelmed by the poignant sense of melancholy that pervades it, He was coming to terms with something when he wrote the line 'the moment you know, you know, you know'.



Bowie encouraged everyone to be a little bit more adventurous than we would have been otherwise, in being who we are, and this is why some of us have responded to his loss so deeply. We owe a lot to him,. He broadened the range of what was conceivable, let alone possible. We grew and evolved through our association and identification with him, following in his tracks as much as we felt able to. Musically, his roster of hit songs for himself and others, are simply littered with classics, and along with John Peel and Brian Eno, he was one of my main guides and mentors. They establish in me a lifelong interest and voyeuristic fondness for the experimental musical oddity, and an active pursuit of the interesting edgy sound just around the corner, in the gutter, on the concealed extremes and fringes, well away from the cultural mainstream.

For all of these things, and much more than I can really express let alone touch on, I feel a heartfelt sense of gratitude and abiding love. Saying 'Thank you David Bowie' though only right, still feels a perfunctory and wholly inadequate level of expression, it falls so far short of where it should be.

Bowie in the Lazarus video