As snaps of brass burst into your face – loud, theatrical, exciting – mimicking the booming electro intro of one of John Grant’s classics, you know this is one of those shows that will stay with you forever.
The pulsing bass of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ then hits, and the brass escalates like a Bond theme. It’s incredible, euphoric, and ingenious. It is everything.
John Grant and the Royal Northern Sinfonia play what could honestly be one the greatest gigs of all time at London’s Royal Festival Hall – the last of a handful of UK dates by the former Czars frontman and orchestra.
This is so much more than Grant with live string arrangements. This is a perfect collaboration of musicians from either side of the tracks moulding and working together. There are dramatic, heart-thumping cellos and double basses making your seat vibrate with crescendos of swirling, Hitchcock-ian strings as projections illuminate the hall’s impressive Giger-like organ pipes. The flute and oboe have starring roles, fluttering throughout like the magical touch of Brian Wilson or Sufjan Stevens. And the tympani – oh, the tympani. It just makes everything, rattling around the impeccable surroundings, pushing each song that little further into the wondrous.
The orchestra joins Grant’s own Icelandic ensemble, which sounds fresh, energetic and note perfect, and brilliant piano- and synth-playing regular Chris Pemberton. This is not a band and orchestra on the same stage. This is one group. The music they create shows how far Grant has come in recent years, from the soothing indie of The Czars to the Midlake-backed folk psych of ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and the now electro-tinged lushness of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. It’s a sound he has developed with the influence of some of the UK’s greatest exports, who he dedicates tonight’s show to. Holly Johnson, Alison Goldfrapp and Tracey Thorn are just some spotted in the audience.
Tracks from both of Grant’s solo albums make the two-and-a-half-hour show fly by. ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ is exactly why live orchestral can be so incredible. It’s cinematic and massive, ending with a cheer like it’s the last song of the night. ‘Queen Of Denmark’ begins slow and subdued before strings burst like a 1950s thriller and bass and percussion hit you excitedly, accompanied by flashes from the vintage film set lights behind.
There are contrasts to the bigger numbers that make you feel like your brain’s going to explode with glee. The Czars’ oldie ‘Drug’ and ‘Fireflies’ from his ‘Queen Of Denmark’ period are heart-breakingly beautiful, with Grant and piano taking centre stage, while ‘Glacier’ is soft and enchanting before the orchestra swells into dramatic and wonderful chaos. His voice is strong, angelic and divine.
Hinting that this may be the last time ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is performed on stage, Grant treats us to three new songs, each twisting electro and strings together in a way that is carving out his signature sound. In a tribute to American theatre actress Geraldine Page, ‘Geraldine’ is as sweet as a Carpenters song, with a Jimmy Webb melody and Glen Campbell guitar, while ‘No More Tangles’ is like Scott Walker singing about hair products. They’re excellent.
No one would have complained if this night lasted another five hours, but it ends with ‘Caramel’ – quite honestly one of the most perfect and beautiful versions of this song that could ever be played. It concludes not only a special evening, but perhaps an era of John Grant that has seen him go from drug and depression-devastated failing musician to someone who embarked on a journey of recovery and self-discovery to become the treasured bear of a man we hold so dear. He seems the picture of happiness and health, even with 2012’s HIV revelation. A new album is obviously in the pipeline, and if tonight is anything to go by, it will be amazing.
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Words: Gemma Hampson
Photos: Chiara Felice