John Grant doesn’t come across as the type of person to sit on the fence; he is what he is and things are how they are. But his music is so painfully honest and intermittently hilarious, or maybe that is painfully hilarious and intermittently honest, that you could be forgiven for thinking that he hadn’t really made his mind up (just look at the videos for ‘GMF’ or ‘Chicken Bones‘ and try not to smile through the pain). Has he really made his mind up about the mysterious TC, about his love life, about anything, really? His lyrics go from absurd to confessional and Grant, more succinctly than many of his contemporaries, manages to yoke most of his emotions into any given song in his incredible repertoire. So he isn’t sitting on the fence, but only a brave soul would challenge him for emotional clarification lest they find themselves going toe to toe with the “greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet”.
Arriving onstage at Dublin’s Vicar Street to a technical fault, his band play an expanded-intro version of ‘You Don’t Have To’ as the roadies go to work. Grant himself takes the time to stretch and flirt with the crowd. Apart from some giggles and a few wolf-whistles there isn’t a peep from the wide-eyed and expectant audience because when Grant finally opens his mouth to sing you get the sense that you are in the presence of greatness. More than a sense, you know it. Arguably John Grant possesses one of the most distinctive, powerful and peerless voices in contemporary music. And it is his voice that presents the next of his many contradictions. Unmistakably masculine and sounding something like chainsaw made by Steinway & Sons, yet delivering pithy, shallow and bitchy lyrics as quickly as he lays his deepest secrets out in front of him.
The set, which is predominantly taken from Pale Green Ghosts, Grant’s second and latest solo album, is a strange mix of electronica and balladry. Synth-heavy and pulsating as Grant sings about yearning, love and revenge and is backed by a nearly all-Icelandic backing band, who do not put a foot wrong as they move through ‘Vietnam’, ‘Blackbelt’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’. The arrival of another head on stage surprises absolutely nobody in the crowd, despite Grant’s attempts to pretend Sinead O’Connor’s presence is a curveball. O’Connor reprises her role as backing vocalist on ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ having covered ‘Queen of Denmark’ on last years How About I Be Me (and You Be You), and the pair have obviously struck up a solid enough friendship. The song is an emotional watershed over the course of the night as both Grant and O’Connor have both been through the wringer over their careers. Grant has famously battled through addiction, the break-up of his band, the death of a parent and recently announced that he was HIV positive. O’Connor herself having been subject to some harsh and unfair scrutiny whilst going through some tough times herself. The pair not only sound incredible together, Grant’s low, thundering timbre providing the perfect base for O’Connor’s high, shrill attack-heavy delivery, they both genuinely seem to be providing support for each other on-stage and hug, waltz and hotld each other during an emotionally charged and quite lengthy standing ovation.
O’Connor stays in-situ for a handful of tunes before Grant takes centre stage for ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, ‘Caramel’ and ‘I Hate This Town’. Returning for ‘GMF’ and ‘Queen of Denmark’, O’Connor sounds in fine form and it would be a shame if the pair do not consider future collaborations. But the highlight of the night comes during the encore when Grant underpins exactly what makes him such an exceptional talent. ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ and ‘TC & Honeybear’ are manifest perfection at the end of a sublime performance. Whoever this TC turns out to be, we may never know, but it really is unfortunate that they have brought out such hot-blooded personal missives. But for fans of Grant, and as long as TC plays the muse, the results are every bit as important as John Grant’s voice so he/she/they may just take it on the chin.