Lithe, energetic and surrounded by musicians of impressive calibre, he seems to be enjoying his return to the live circuit after a gap of two decades.
Following his first ever Glastonbury slot and two performances in London’s Hyde Park, the first for Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations, tonight was a chance to see him in more intimate surroundings ahead of an autumn theatres tour.
Outside on the Uxbridge Road the rain was doing its best to wash Shepherd’s Bush off the face of the map. Inside, three roly-poly ladies, draped in lavish equatorial colours, took to the stage and transformed the dampness into sunshine.
Infectious saturnine grins topped movements at once fluidly sensual and at the same time self-aware. The largest of the three would later wiggle her considerable derriere in Grant’s admiring direction more than once, causing the audience to mimic her. Booty shaking as a description doesn’t do this lady justice.
That’s not all the audience were joining in with. Optimistically dressed ladies sporting grey locks and tropical wardrobes sashayed along to Grant’s extensive back catalogue, singing delightedly along with One Party, Reparation, Do You Feel My Love? and Walking On Sunshine. His material, memorably based in reggae, encompasses calypso and afrobeat rhythms too – Grant has spent much of his time away cataloguing Caribbean calypso music from days gone by.
Every one of the songs, many structured on just three or four chords, seemed written with audience inclusion in mind. Grant’s intricacy comes in showmanship rather than guitar solo noodling, as evidenced when he invited his former Equals bandmate Pat onto the stage for a bow: “Come and meet my people,” he grinned, white teeth sparkling.
Charting his shift from band member to solo artist with his first hit Hello Africa, he spoke of the need to thank family for assistance given, of his desire to acknowledge martyrs – referencing Mandela – for making the world a better place. I Don’t Wanna Dance, his only number one, followed.
Bush Hall’s reaction to his return must have pleased Grant who, with dreds piled high into his hat, indulged himself in several less well known tracks. We’d be singing along with Hearts & Diamonds, he announced, before he’d finished playing it – and duly gave instruction as to how. Of course the chorus was to prove as memorable as anything he’s written, and he got his wish.
As a lead guitarist he’s a surprise; each note is pinpoint accurate and played effortlessly. As he’s happy to remind anyone who asks, he writes, records, performs and produces his own material, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that he really can play his instruments.
Grant’s evident thrill at connecting, not just with his audience of yesteryear but people who hadn’t the chance to see him before, was as infectious as his dancers’ ear-to-ear grins. Yet he knew as well as we did that the set wouldn’t be complete without his most famous pair of songs; Gimme Hope, Jo’anna and Electric Avenue.
The first of these, his classic anti-apartheid hit that cemented his reputation, brought the house down. The remarkably tuneful audience sang every line before Grant wound down the volume and then launched it to the roof again. Electric Avenue found its feet with a souped-up tempo, a compelling stroll down memory lane (and along a side street in Brixton).
Living On The Front Line, another of his political songs that might have referenced current African conflicts, wound the encore down not in a serious tone but a slightly frivolous one, Grant playing his guitar first with his teeth and then, cringingly, with his crotch. And yet feelgood vibes eddied round the room and out of the doors. Grant is closing in on his free Oyster card, but on tonight’s emphatic evidence you wouldn’t bet on him settling back with pipe and slippers any time soon.