It is a brave band that has a classical pianist as its support act, especially one playing melancholy cinematic solos. They risk setting a tone for the night that is downbeat and lacking the buzz that leaves audiences wanting more. But it was a risk The Czars were prepared to take at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre, where their set was opened by an hour of such music played by Dustin O’Halloran.
To get a flavour of O’Halloran’s playing, think of the piano solos in Amelie; wistful, sad and melodic. The effect was underscored by an overhead screen that played silent films of dreamy landscapes populated by shadows with all the ethereal quality of memory. While undoubtedly lovely to listen to, it was not a great way to kick off a gig, and the seated audience looked sapped of energy when the interval came before The Czars’ set.
Those hoping for a bit of a lift after their white wine and stem ginger ice cream were disappointed. John Grant, The Czars’ lead singer, walked on, looked around at the sparse audience and joked: “I want to thank you all for not going to see Beck tonight.” He then launched into the plaintive piano-based Pink House, a perfect showcase for his beautiful baritone.
What followed were more plaintive melodies, backed by fine musicianship from a band that in former incarnations has drawn comparisons with Nina Simone and Miles Davis. As such the music is better suited for small clubs than auditoriums, and the intimacy needed for it to seep into the listener’s soul was lacking in the grand Victorian theatre. The band was not helped by technical problems – throughout, Grant complained of monitors not working, although his singing and playing seemed fine to those sat out front. Where it did show was on the handful of louder numbers, especially during Drug, despite which was still one of the best songs of the night.
The downbeat mood is to be understood given the band’s recent history – problems recording latest album Goodbye, a number of false starts at fame, including opening for the likes of the Flaming Lips and David Gray, and the departure of several key founder members. Grant is a likeable front man, chatting to the audience and sharing new material with fans, who, despite the muted mood, cheered for every song. He has a nice line in irony, which calls to mind Randy Newman.
The highlight of the night was the sublime Paint The Moon, which Grant poured upon us like anointing oil. It was the first time the half empty venue felt full and the band’s technical difficulties were shed like snakeskin. The set was rounded off with a rousing version of Second Runner Up, which caused one person to shout out: “What was that?” “You don’t know?” answered a dejected Grant. “No, but I like it – a lot,” replied the guy. The exchange summed up the gig: open, spontaneous, a little sad, and better suited to a more intimate venue where the singer’s emotions and band’s musicianship could be better appreciated.