LIVE: John Grant @ De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
“This pain, it is a glacier moving through you”, John Grant bellows out under solitary spotlight, redolent of the moon casting its pearlescent column of light across black water, over colonnade and grade-I modernist splendour of Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion. A dedication to “all those lost over the past couple years”, it is a fitting tribute to the scale and warped temporal scope of the pandemic, the magnitude of which is stunningly evoked in an extended piano solo outro. Piercing staccato glides over towering octaves in gelid pristine clarity. Arriving in the middle of the set, it is a truly breath-taking peak around which the gig is draped.
At one end, the set is front-loaded with tracks from new LP, Boy from Michigan, including an opening four song salvo. A smart move from the veteran performer, as the reception (from a clearly reverent crowd no less), can only be described as tepid. This is apparent when sassy Pale Green Ghosts belter ‘Black Belt’ follows and stirs the room.
Billed as a “Rare, stripped-back” performance, this entails the man himself plus two musicians wrestling an array of synths with instrumental flourishes on piano, guitar, clarinet, and sax. Considering this potential handicap and whether or not this is an (understandable) financial move, the trio make an impressive noise.
The sound is impeccable, as can be expected from such an esteemed venue, and John Grant’s voice is commanding and precise as ever, never better than when hitting the emotional heights of setlist highlights ‘Glacier’ and ‘Caramel’, but with a range for unexpected vocal flourishes, like a touching Jimmy Somerville moment on ‘Touch and Go’. It also results in new versions of older favourites from his debut, such as the eponymous ‘Queen of Denmark’ and ‘Marz’, to mixed results. It’s interesting to hear throbbing electronic versions of these songs, and all power to him for experimenting, but you can’t help but feel they would go over better in their original piano-led forms.
As well as poignant melancholic moments there is levity scattered throughout. When not working the keys, he is consistently prowling the stage, throwing shapes in his engaging, sweet, inimitable style. A not uncourageous thing, considering the glaring 1000-strong crowd of a town known as “God’s Waiting Room”, and proof of his dedication to providing entertainment. For every despairing ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ there is the silly swagger of a “Sensitive New Age Guy”. It’s a comfort to know he doesn’t take himself too seriously in a back catalogue which has the potential to be overwrought in the dramatic if selected poorly.
Thankfully the setlist and performance is excellent. By the time the self-loathing brags of perennial live encore-slayer ‘GMF’ ring out, the crowd are on their feet and thoroughly won over. And the feeling is mutual. As well as the obvious joy in being able to perform live again, there is a particular gratitude he displays in playing to a country that has embraced him so readily when his own has failed to do so. Long may this relationship continue.
Photos: Sara-Louise Bowery