Friday, 5 February 2016

973 JOHN GRANT, Soley, Southampton Guildhall, Thursday 4th February 2016

And on to the next one; quite a different proposition from last night, however, tonight’s host being US alt-rock singer-songwriter John Grant, whom I’d previously checked out on Bonfire Night 2010 (gig 797) with Jason Lytle, enjoying his wry, confessional and oft quirk-laden lyrics and dusky, Scott Walker-esque moody vocal delivery. Never followed up on it at the time, however, so he remained resolutely off my radar until “Down Here”, a splendid track on a late-2015 “Uncut” magazine compilation, prompted me to pick up his current, 3rd, album “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”. An odd juxtaposition of similar deliciously dark balladry to that on display back then, and some unexpected electronica which varied from the weirdly attractive, through cheesy, to downright jarring. Still, discovering his other 2 albums thanks to Grant fan Tim (and loving debut “Queen Of Denmark” in particular) underlined that here was a maverick, idiosyncratic talent worth checking out again, so I booked for this one, unfortunately being unable to persuade Tim to join me!
So, flying solo again, I set off down an inky A34, hitting unexpected slow traffic on the M3 approach to Soton, but parking up in the last space in the cobbled car park around the side of the venue. Wandered into this magisterial and ornate hall midway through support Soley, an Icelandic female pianist who meanderingly wittered on between her hushed schoolmarm ballads. I actually liked her oratories (“this is a little bit sad song, but it’s ok, I’m over it... I’m actually a happy person!”) more than her set numbers, which left little impression.
Thereby followed a half hour wait before the witching hour, as the place filled up amply but by no means completely – I reckoned about 2/3 full in this quite large hall, and plenty of space and a great view in my stage left spot, about 5 rows back from the front. Played “Spot The Hipster” to pass the time, which was easy – the place was replete with brogues, blazers and berets. And beards. Of course. Beards proliferated the place, beards on young, beards on old, bumfluff to lumberjacks. But of course the best beard of all was due onstage soon... Spot on 9, the lights smashed to black, and the 4-piece band took the stage to the taped layered spoken word opener to Grant’s current “Grey Tickles,” album. Grant himself took the stage last, a t-shirted big friendly bear of a man, smiling and waving to all, basking in the reverential reception. Following the sweeping orchestral grandeur of opener “Geraldine”, Grant paused to greet the crowd and introduce his band, including, “on drums – the incomparable Budgie!” Sure enough, black clad and hair dyed boot-polish black, it was the former Big In Japan/ Slits/ Siouxsie sticksman – crikey, we’re in the presence of punk rock royalty tonight, no doubt!
Grant’s set tonight reflected his musical oeuvre... an opening salvo of the lush, emotive and haunting balladry, with “Down Here” a widescreen, almost Bond theme moody piece and “It Doesn’t Matter To Him” eerie and elegiac, being followed by a mid-set interlude of more 80’s style electronica heralded by the almost tangible synth pulsebeat and Kraftwerkian traffic noise blasts of “Pale Green Ghosts”. Very much like Scott Walker, the man ploughs his own idiosyncratic furrow, seeking to blend these 2 uneasy bedfellows of musical styles together. I have to say some of these mid-set fuzzy electro grooves left me cold, but the subsequent “Glacier” was the set highlight, a stark and gorgeous piano led ballad with an exquisite sonorous vocal performance. Simply, Grant has a quite beautiful voice, more beautiful than any man – even a gay man – really has any right to have. Rich, haunting, dark, mysterious and melancholy, able to convey a range of emotions, and for me displayed to best effect on his more slow-burn, conventional material. A very relaxed between-song orator as well; praising Southampton as, “a beautiful city,” and responding to ironic laughs from the home crowd with, “you didn’t see where I grew up!” and thanking everyone for coming out on Thursday (“it is Thursday, right?”), remarking that during the week, “I wouldn’t leave the fucking house!” The Harry Nilsson-like “Queen Of Denmark” with its’ freeform prose lyric, leading to a slashing chorus noisefest, was also a highlight, almost topped by the entertainingly profane “GMF”. A couple more electro-dominated numbers bookended the set and encore, but the best was saved for last, with final number “Caramel” a stark and deeply intimate love song, with a Jeff Buckley-esque, octave straddling vocal performance. A beautiful way to end a real set of contrasts.
Grabbed set-lists for myself and Bristol gig buddy Alfie (whom I ran into down the front) before hitting the road, back home for midnight. As I said, a set of contrasts, but when it worked, boy was it a lush and lovely noise. And Budgie too! Splendid night out!

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