John Grant will have been to many places in the eventful last five years of his life, but it’s safe to say that this is probably his first visit to East End Park, the hardest-of-knocks suburb of Leeds that’s a classic modern British cultural juxtaposition.
Outside the environs of the Irish Centre sirens wail in the hazy evening air and half a dozen dead-eyed teens sit wordlessly on a wall outside the nearby Londis; inside, however, the textures are more welcoming – at least as homely as warm Guinness and clotted after-sun gets.
If Grant perceives the urbanity around him, he never shows it. His back story is a truly fascinating one of an underdog in the music game, the kind that it usually puts down without mercy. Defeated by his old band The Czars‘ commercial disasters, in the late noughties he escaped to New York to wait tables before eloping with the eruditely beige Texans Midlake to record ‘The Queen of Denmark‘, a brutally acerbic self examination dressed up in old fashioned, laugh-out-loud songs.
His homosexuality never concealed, Grant found the sort of adoration his old band had never achieved, his lack of a closet endearing him to straight and gay audiences alike. 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts‘ then took his slightly Vaudeville argot and turned it on its head; a follow up album that interwove dark electronica and disco into the mix, in parts more than bleak but never less than a grand design.
Back in Leeds 9 he takes the stage in front of a sold out crowd that’s testament to the remarkable half life of his work, if anything in larger numbers than his previous, Saturday night show in the city. Opening with the balletic, achingly slow waltz of ‘You Don’t Have To‘, all the spellbinding remorse of his former relationships fade into one, the feeling like peeking voyeurishly into a stolen diary. Glass sardonically half empty, broken dreams are Grant’s stock in trade, the lover(s) of ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him‘ and ‘Vietnam‘ as remote as they’re magnetically attractive.
Saddled with the character flaw of never wanting to tell a lie, experiences from the therapist’s couch feature long in Grant’s cannon, with the self esteem fakers which inspired ‘GMF‘ having ironically inspired a bucket full of snide humour and honeyed contempt. Ditto to the dude whose hipster ticks are littered around ‘Black Belt‘: lamenting the fact that he can’t shred like Corey Taylor, the singer admits candidly between songs that, “There’s a lot of anger there.”
Caring less now about strictly promoting a record, the set becomes more balanced and equally split between albums. The highlights though – apart from the truculent encore ‘Chicken Bones‘ – are still the ritualised techno pulse of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and then ‘Glacier‘, in which Grant articulates how to deal with prejudice not just about sexuality but of any stripe against a backdrop culled from ambitious, orchestral dimensions. It’s a signature moment, delivered with the kind of sincerity which most contemporary artists are meant to lack, but then again we’re, as the cliché goes, not dealing here with your garden variety pop star.
Treating the audience as never less than his friend, the singer proves that despite the concrete jungle that lies outside of the door tonight, he’s able to make a cocoon for them from merely his astonishing voice, a tired out heart and some words he probably regrets.
It’s a rare talent, and one well worth risking your sat nav for.