John Grant

It’s my fault to a certain extent.
I have been listening Queen of Denmark, John Grant solo debut on spotify since it was out but in a fairly distract way.

Attracted but also hijacked by the presence of Midlake as a session band playing in it, I thought it was a bit close to The Courage of Other, which stands out, as one of my favourite albums this year.

Several months later, Midlake toured again, putting on another comfortable Cambridge date. John Grant is supporting.
I got back to his album for some weeks, I immersed into the lyrics and I got swamped.
It is an undisputable truth that our predisposition to music changes. When Queen of Denmark came out I wasn’t too much into the full rounded orchestral sound his baritone needs.
This autumn blues in the end fits more his music with my mood.

John Grant opening set in Cambridge, 6 songs plus the cameo appearance to sing Czars’ Paint the Moon on the Midlake encore was overwhelming.

When I say overwhelming I mean that in minutes I invested 15£ for the physical special edition of his double CD at the gig and, back home, 15£ more to buy one of the last tickets for his Queen Elizabeth Hall, scheduled the day after.

In less than 24 hours I was on a train to London. In principle to go to the opening of a collective exhibition at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green where one of my photos is exposed, in reality, once there, impatient to get to Southbank in time for Grant headline show.
Tickets demand for this concert has been so high it was moved from Purcell’s room (capacity ~350) to the QEH (capacity ~1000). Now he is selling fast a spring tour which will see him playing a solo date at the Shepeherd’s Bush Empire (capacity ~2000) at the end of March. You don’t need to know much math to understand this curve is exponential.

Once there, I was happy to have bought the double CD in Cambridge because, for some obscure economic reasons, the UK inflation went up 25% on that single day. The album price at the QEH was set at 20£. Weird. I wonder who gets those 5 quid-a-CD. I hope it is BellaUnion. Simon Raymonde thoroughly deserves a huge praise to have believed in John Grant when no one else did.

I must admit the other reason I was attracted to the London show was a press release by the Smoke Fairies announcing that Grant invited them to play some guitar. My love for them is so openly confessed they must believe I am a stalker, but before the moment Katherine and Jessica provided their smoky guitars to Grant voice, there was a full amazing 80 minutes hell of a show.

John Grant came on stage with the same musicians he played the Cambridge Junction the night before.
Full time Midlake tour flutist/keyboardist/vocalist Jesse Chandler offers all his multi-instrumentalist expertise. Classic violinist, Fiona Brice, adds some string grandeur to some of the songs.

He opened with a new track, You Don’t Have To that, explains, invites anyone to speak out clearly what they think in the appropriate moment. From the bits of verses I catch, intentions are clear

“You don’t have to pretend to care
You don’t have to say things that you don’t mean”

The slow piano repeated riff emphasize the concept into another brilliant song.

During the show Grant and Chandler alternate between a grand piano and a set of synths. The lack of a rhythm section, or the lack of Midlake as a session band if you want, needs some electronic loops to keep the beat.
The focal point, though, which is clear to anyone who has listened to him live even for a single song, is the power of the voice. So grand everything else is put down to scale. Every instrument when he is on stage must adapts to the timbre.

He dedicates Where Dreams Go To Die to Kings Cross Travelodge, which causes a laugh. One of my favourite tracks, not only because is the closest sounding to Midlake. Lyrics are just brilliant:

“Your Beauty is unstoppable, your confidence unspeakable
I know you know I know you know, that I know that you know
I’m willing to do anything, to get attention from you dear, even
though I don’t have anything that I could bargain with

Baby, you are where dreams go to die, and I regret the day
your lovely carcass caught my eye, baby, you are where dreams go to die
and I’ve got to get away I don’t want to but I have to try, oh baby”

Queen of Denmark beyond an album is a wonderful autobiography about a man that had not an easy life. As he explained to Gareth Grundy in a wholehearted interview on the Guardian, finishing the album almost brought him to suicide.

From a man caught in a life-limiting depression, despite having been part of the wonderful and outrageously underrated band Czars (side note: I also bought 4 of their albums after this show) the music therapy supporters don’t need no further proof it does works

Tonight, the most important moment of his career to date, the turning point for the artist, Grant is outgoing and challenge his shyness and self-confidence joking between songs with the help of a very warm audience.

As he tells fans, he will play the entire album apart from a couple of songs. Surely the key ones are on the setlist, as the childhood memories of a sweet shop which becomes a remote planet in which he takes refuge:

“Bittersweet strawberry marshmallow butterscotch
Polarbear cashew dixieland phosphate chocolate
My tutti frutti special raspberry, leave it to me
Three grace scotch lassie cherry smash lemon free

I wanna go to Marz
Where green rivers flow
And your sweet sixteen is waiting for you after the show”

[I Wanna Go To Marz]

Grant also adds some pearls to tonight’s lavish necklace. Czars’ Drug send shivers down my spine and makes me want to believe in reunions

“You are a drug to me
I never ever thought it otherwise
And I love the lies you’ve told to me
While looking me directly in my eyes

This is not ecstasy, but it’s better than cocaine.
and you know that I will miss you when you’re gone
but I’m not equipped to play this game”

The songs flow smoothly, no weak moments throughout.
We learn his favourite track is Caramel and there is an important warm welcoming of a critical moment when JC Hates Faggots arrives. JC stays for Jesus Christ if you missed the acronym. The song, I challenge Twitter 140 characters lazyness and invite you to read it in full, go like this:

“I’ve felt uncomfortable since the day that I was born
Since the day I glimpsed the black abyss in your eyes
There’s no way you could make all of this shit up on your own
It could only come from the mastermind with eyes

I can’t believe that I’ve considered taking my own life
Cos I believed the lies about me were the truth
It will be magic to watch your transformation when you realise that you’ve been had
It’s enough to make a guy like me feel sad

Cos you tell me that Jesus
He hates fruit loops, son,
We told you that when you were young
Or pretty much anything you want him to
Like sitcoms, pedophiles and kangaroos
Morons who cut and line
Three-bean salad and parking fines
And when we win this war on society
I hope your blind eyes will be opened and you’ll see

The arrogance it takes to walk around in the world the way you do
It turns my brain to jelly every time
The rage and fear I’m feeling have begun to make me sick
And I think that I might be about to commit a crime

And you tell me that Jesus
He hates homos son
We told you that when you were young
Or pretty much anything you want him to
Like coco puffs, red cars and jews
Postal clerks who waste your time
Weight loss shakes, and the local news
And when we win the war on society
I hope your blind eyes will be opened and you’ll see

Cos Jesus,
He hates faggots, son
We told you that when you were young
Or pretty much anyone you want him to
Like niggers, spicks, redskins and kikes
Men who cannot tame their wives
Weaklings, cowards, and bald dikes,
And when we win the war on society
I hope your blind eyes will be opened and you’ll see”

The closing track is the title song and my favourite of the album.
Queen of Denmark is probably the most luxurious song of 2010, its crescendo, its abrupt change of time and sound at the chorus, his two opening verses, make it perfect. One of those song destined to stay… into my heart for sure.

“I wanted to change the world
But I could not even change my underwear
And when the shit got really really out of hand
I had it all the way up to my hairline
Which keeps receding like my self-confidence
As if I ever had any of that stuff anyway”

Then on the encore, finally, those two amplifiers are switched on, John introduces the Smoke Fairies which he invited to play guitar because he can’t.
Jessica and Kathrine don’t say a word, don’t sing a verse but treat me with the second version of Czars’ Paint the Moon I hear live in 24 hours.
The first with full Midlake line-up, now with this stripped down acoustic guitar rendering.
I can’t tell which was best, when a song is so beautiful and the singer has such a voice you don’t need much of an arrangement to get it right.

The show closes with Smoke Fairies and Grant coverieng Connie Francis hit Where the Boys Are, a 60s classic he already sang on Czars covers album, Sorry I made you cry. One of the four now sitting in my CDtheque.

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Photo tip

Not a photo tip, since I wasn’t shooting this gig. Actually a tip about stepping back and not compulsively going to photograph gigs.

I arrive to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a gorgeous smaller version of the Royal Festival Hall, with this pleasant feeling of having the permission to enjoy a gig from the beginning without the pressure (and the pleasure) of shooting it.

True, I did photograph John Grant the night before, where these pictures were taken, and I satisfied my addiction of collecting live music but, arriving at a theatre lighthearted not because I didn’t have my heavy camera bag it was rewarding. Sitting on a comfortable seat drinking a stout, appreciating the audience, the atmosphere, the music. Not being a nuisance to the ones behind me. Wonderful.

Not that it’ll bring me to wrap up my concert photography, but I just want to share and tell all addicted concert photographers (I know many) that going to a gig without a photopass and with a proper ticket is a cathartic experience.

As when you take a break from your job to explore something you love from another perspective. It’s recharging the batteries. Give it a go, I loved it.

~ by Valerio on November 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “John Grant”

  1. I really liked this post. Like many I am consumed at shooting shows. Some I am excited to shoot, many I just shoot for the sake of providing content for the website I shoot for. It has been a while since I have just bought a ticket and went to a show I wanted to see. Last time I did I spent the whole night mad that I couldnt shoot it, and a bit obsessed at what I would have done if given the chance. Am I crazy? maybe a bit, more so pasionate about photography.

    You make me realize that it is good to slow down and just enjoy a show without the need to contact people for passes, or to carry around a big heavy photo bag.

    Great post, this one helped a lot.

  2. Thank you.
    Shooting gigs is an addiction and I know no rehab. All we can do is self-therapy, step back to the music.
    I know very well the feeling of missing a key photograph you’d want to take. There will be other opportunities!

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