What is it with John Grant? For someone who makes such ostensibly uncommercial music, he’s become quite the player on these shores. A top three album and two packed nights at Vicar Street, swiftly followed by the announcement of an Iveagh Gardens return for next summer, prove that Grant has a special place in Irish hearts – certainly more so than much of the rest of the world.
See him live and you’ll find many reasons why, and a few that leave you wondering. Perhaps key is the man himself, surely one of the most charismatic stage performers doing the rounds. From the moment he opens his mouth tonight he has you won over with his wit, charm and warmth. There’s much to admire in his cohorts too, with his usual band swelled by the addition of three backing singers (including gospel legend Mary Pearce) and the Banshees’ Budgie on drums.
So how come I spend a large proportion of the night unmoved, unengaged by what we witness? The problem is, that taken apart from his own personality, the music isn’t that good. There are two modes on offer – quirky upbeat electronic or downbeat elegance – and, while each have memorable moments, many seem to be just inferior versions. The night drifts along pleasantly enough but you find yourself looking forward more to the bits between the songs, marvelling at Budgie’s playing and wondering why you can’t really hear Pearce and her vocal colleagues.
Then he plays three songs in a row and for a while it all makes complete sense. Sure it seems obvious to pick out ‘Glacier’, ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and ‘GMF’ as highlights but there is absolutely no doubt that they are his best work. Everything about them is practically perfect – the bravado of ‘GMF’ and the dynamics of ‘Queen…’. It’s ‘Glacier’ that really draws you in, a devastating combination of rage and empathy. That nothing else comes close, especially on his new album, is a shame but doesn’t diminish the impact.
Whatever the doubts, of course, John Grant’s meteoric rise is unlikely to come to a halt just yet, and nor would you wish it to. He is a genuinely unique and extremely welcome presence on today’s musical landscape and for anyone to smuggle such important and eloquent messages into the mainstream can only be a good thing. For the moment, however, forgive me if I don’t get quite as carried away as some.
John Grant photographed for State by Mark Earley.