The air at Heaven is rich with anticipation and wonder as a thick-parker clad John Grant enters the stage in darkness and silence – quite a feat for a man who loves a chat and whose politeness is always second to none.
As the electro beats rain down on the sold out show - loud, minimal, retro - the crowd begins to cheer. It’s a fair few minutes before Grant take to the mic for the unnerving vocals of Ernest Borgnine. It’s the perfect showcase for his new material – sinister, dark, hauntingly beautiful.
As the parka is removed (but the beany remains), Grant sheds this alter-ego and opens himself up. It’s been a few months now since he revealed he is HIV+ and it seems the shouts of ‘I love you’ are reassuring, welcomed and reciprocated. There’s a whole lot of love in this room and an almost intense desire to hear his new stuff live; refreshing for fans of a debut solo record that’s been so dominant in the past three years.
The Midlake folk rock, rich in harmonies and foresty metaphors, is gone, replaced with a stabbing buzz and fuzz that reverberates in the base of your spine. The band now hails from Grant’s adoptive home of Iceland (and one from Coventry, making for some of the sweetest heckling ever heard at a gig) and they bring a freshness to his songs, still drenched in pain, lost love and loneliness.
These songs are still quintessential Grant, like ‘You Don’t Have To’ and its simplistic melody over beats as encompassing as Donna Summer’s‘ I Feel Love’. You’d laugh out loud at the damning lyrics if they weren't so heart-breaking. Melancholy winds through the minor chords of ‘Vietnam’ as Grant has the undivided attention of every pair of eyes in the room and ’GMF’ is superb, even without his guest vocalist, the “unpredictable” Sinead O’Connor, who he hints could be making an appearance. She doesn’t.
There’s massive applause for ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, its sampled brass and strings punching life into a song heavy with torment and intimidating electro. It’s amazing. The mood, if not the tone, is lifted with the humour and pop of ‘Blackbelt’, but drops slightly with ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, the only song that fails to flow on the album and, despite the sad story behind it – a tribute to an inspirational teacher who took his own last year – fails to wow on stage either.
It’s pulled back with the vexed ‘Why Don’t ‘You Love Me Anymore’, lovely ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’ and rather jolly ‘I Hate This Town’. Who knew it was inspired by ABBA?! But they lay in the shadow of Icelandic landscape inspired ‘Glacier’, the ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ ‘Caramel’ moment – ‘this pain is like a Glacier moving through you’. Grant’s voice is as thick and warm as molten lava, framed only by almost Rachmaninov piano and sampled strings and horns as cinematic as a Bond score.. It honestly doesn’t get much better than this.
The night ends with a hark back to 2010 and ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’, a slightly reluctant but spell-binding ‘Caramel’ and sing-a-long ‘Queen of Denmark’; the perfect ending to what has been a pretty perfect gig, topped off with a second encore of ‘Chicken Bones’ just for the hell of it. Thanks John. We love you too.
Words by Gemma Hampson
Photos by Rachel Lipsitz