Cambridge Corn Exchange
Former Czars frontman John Grant won plaudits for his beautiful debut album Queen of Denmark, full of sweeping love and hate songs skewed with bitterness and off-kilter humour. A smattering of eerie synth sounds were heard in the undergrowth, but it wasn’t until his next record, Pale Green Ghosts, that they broke cover. This lost him some of his fans, who preferred the more simple acoustic balladry; but it was when he won me over. Live, Ghosts is always astonishing: last night was no different, with a smiling Grant conducting the eyeball-rattling beats, throbbing synths, and faux-brass stabs like a dad-dancing preacher. Looking like a Viking discovering ecstasy for the first time, he continued hip-wiggling to the funkier offerings from his latest album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – with the adrenalin-charged live arrangements adding weight and exuberance to songs like Guess How I Know, You And Him, and the soaring Disappointing.
Grant’s regular touring band is an impressive unit: Petur Hallfrimsson on guitar and Jakob Smari Magnusson on bass bring industrial heft and their own brand of Icelandic funk; and Coventry-born keyboard virtuoso Chris Pemberton is a master knob-twiddler who can also do fragile virtuosity (his piano-playing at the climax of Glacier was sublime). And then there’s the new addition on drums: Budgie. With his beaky nose aloft, his floppy fringe flying, and his gloved hands waggling his black, white-tipped drumsticks, he looked for all the world like a double wanded-up Professor Snape, showily conjuring rhythmic spells.
But it’s John Grant’s voice that elevates his shows from good to great. Whether he’s camping it up on the electro-pop Prince-like Snug Snacks, blasting out the distorted chorus of Guess How I Know, or sitting at the piano performing the tender Caramel he’s totally in control. It’s a voice that can croon, lacerate, caress, amuse, shock, and mesmerize. It’s a force of nature.
From my position (right at the front of the crowd, just 10ft from Mr Grant!), it looked like an ‘older’ crowd. Support act Icelandic singer songwriter Sóley (performing some dreamy, delicate, looped tunes) thanked us for being so polite, and asked us what we were studying, and the answer for most was probably ‘the onset of middle age’). Incidentally, after her set, I had a good view of her getting her tassles caught in some drapes at the back of the stage and having to be released by two roadies, which was extremely entertaining.
It made me think..
It made me think: I like John Grant on record. I love him live.