WOW. Just, wow.
His voice is rich and deep, bruised, angry, wry, lost, pleading, wherever the song takes him.
This was an extraordinary concert, part of the occasional series where guests are backed by the BBC Phil. John Grant, probably the star of the show at the previous Boy George/Culture Club concert, here took centre stage, with a slightly reduced orchestra and members of his Icelandic backing band.
From the start the mark was set sky high. It Doesn't Matter To Him mixed his inimitable drollery, 'And even though I felt beaten down/By constant doubt/Depression and confusion/Brought about by people's actions/Death and tax forms', with his heart-on-sleeve confessions: 'It doesn't matter to him/I could be anything/But I could never win his heart again.'
Interviewed by Tom Ravenscroft from BBC Radio 6 Music during a live link, Tom asked if he could keep it together with an orchestra backing up his already heartwrecking lyrics. A look at Grant's face and his halting answer, 'Just about...' made one fear for his emotional well-being throughout the next hour and a half.
What followed was selected highlights from his two solo albums, Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts. Arranged and orchestrated by Fiona Brice, who also contributed backing vocals and piano, the augmented songs were far more successful than most 'with an orchestra' events. He writes killer tunes for a start, and the crucial presence of bass, drum and guitar meant that the drive and urgency of the material wasn't muddied.
John Grant and The Phil
Brice also appears to know her way around the orchestra – fantastic oboes in Caramel, brass building and building and building in the crescendo of Glacier, the inventive arrangement of Pale Green Ghosts, the strings flitting around during Fire Flies and so on – the colours she introduced to the songs added lustre and weight.
Grant himself, moving between piano, microphone and various 80s-sounding synth keyboards was charming and charismatic. His voice is rich and deep, bruised, angry, wry, lost, pleading, wherever the song takes him. 'I wanted to change the world/But I could not even change my underwear' had one smiling and worrying; 'I should have practiced my scales/I should not be attracted to males' ditto. Of course, this latter lyric is from GMF, which has the hysterical chorus beginning with 'But I am the greatest motherfucker/That you're ever going to meet...' and proved to be a great singalong moment.
Anyone who has a ticket for his upcoming show at the Bridgewater Hall in November is in for a treat. The concert reviewed here is still available on iPlayer (and maybe the BBC red button), and is obviously recommended. It sparkles with highlights and special moments.
One such, when this reviewer almost lost it completely, was during the aforementioned Glacier. It is a song about 'how America is not a theocracy', about hypocrisy, about homophobia, about love. Violas pre-eminent, the brooding pace opens up and, with an echo on the vocal, Grant, hands twitching, eyes closed, steps up to the microphone and hurls 'But this pain...' into the auditorium. The sniffles all around me when the song's kettle-drummed and roaring brass coda faded suggested that I wasn't alone.
A recent interview has him explaining how he is moving away from the directly personal, from the emotional content of the break-up album par excellence, Pale Green Ghosts. Given the intensity brought to these songs, with such a luscious soundscape provided by this orchestra in particular, one can't imagine him being able to carry on at such a pitch, it's maybe a relief to hear that he's moving on.
BBC Phil, Grant...but let's not make Eastender jokes...especially when Fiona Brice is singing with him
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