John Grant @ O2 Academy Oxford – 08/05/13

John Grant live Oxford

For those who thought that Pale Green Ghosts was a jarring departure from his previous recorded work, fans of John Grant can console themselves in the fact that his live performances are just as touching and engrossing as ever. Replacing the hairy, soft-rock of Midlake for his new electronic troupe of Icelandic chums, Grant can now boast a live show which is multifaceted in style and represents an extensive sweep of the man’s personality; songs that make you wince, songs that make you crease, songs that make your testicles vibrate (his claim, not mine), and, most importantly, songs that make you feel empowered to banish the woes of the world into a drawer marked “perspective”. Speaking honestly and frankly about his recent HIV diagnosis, Grant pondered what pearls of wisdom one his heroes, Ernest Borgnine, would be able to offer; “he’d probably tell me not to be such a faggot”. You have to admire his honesty and humour when speaking about such a life-changing situation and, despite often being quick to pick up on his own flaws, Grant remains philosophical about most things in life, especially regarding relationships and death.

The set began with his new band taking to the stage and beginning an ambient build-up of industrial synths and harsh electronic percussion. Grant wondered on stage after a short wait and launched into brilliant opening lines of ‘You Don’t Have To’; “Remember walking hand in hand side by side / We walked the dogs and took long strolls to the park / Except we never had dogs / And never went to the park”. It’s a subtle kind of humour, but it’s a joke that everyone in attendance is happy to share in. One thing that isn’t subtle is his recent revelry in heavy pop. Sometimes touching upon billowing tundra’s of icy Scandinavian synth, other times referencing the camp-disco scenes of Berlin, Grant spends most of the gig looming (and sometimes dancing!) at the front of the stage, only rarely perching to play keys. This mass of electronic sound sometimes proves so bombastic, that it can feel as if your eardrums might shatter, but this ballsy new sound needs to be appreciated at a ridiculous level of decibels to fully understand the weight of anger behind each track.

Grant mainly sticks within the realms of Pale Green Ghosts, with brief forays into Queen of Denmark territory, and is clearly thrilled to be fronting a band that creates the kind of music that has always been at the very core of his heart. He could hardly contain his swelling pride when he mentioned performing live on stage with Sinead O’Connor recently in Dublin. Musically, John Grant may appear to be a cantankerous so-and-so, but in-the-flesh he exudes self-confidence and good humour, never far away from cracking wise and chuckling heartedly at his own buffoonery as well as that of the audience.

The new album’s title track provided a mid-set highlight of vicious synth soundscapes reminiscent of the Knife, whilst his vocals were processed through decayed delay effects that reverberated ominously throughout the venue. As the show was reaching its climax, Grant treated the crowd to brilliant renditions of ‘GMF’ and ‘Glacier’, the two best songs from his new album; one a humorous tale of self-deprecation and self-celebration all in one, the other a touching piano ballad which offers poignant advice to those who feel isolated and ostracized. A two hour set was capped off with an encore of fan favourites from The Queen of Denmark – ‘Sigourney Weaver’, ‘Caramel’ and the album’s title track – showcasing what Grant does best; revealing his considerable talent as a singer and a song-writer to simple piano-led instrumentation.

It was great to hear Grant push himself musically on Pale Green Ghosts, but after so long in the wilderness, only to be “saved” by the safe sounds of Midlake; it certainly was a risky manoeuvre. Nothing is guaranteed in music, let alone the vague notion of success. However, based upon tonight’s rapturous reception for the big man, John Grant has found a solid fan-base who is willing to be led down different paths. They know the abundant talents that this man possesses and trust in his considerable skills as a songwriter. There is an interesting journey laid ahead of John Grant, but it seems that he has found the adequate comradery and self-confidence to progress in high spirits.