Live Music + Gig Reviews

John Grant and Midlake @ Royal Festival Hall, London

7 September 2011

It’s hard to believe that the world of music nearly lost John Grantfor good after the implosion of The Czars in 2004. After sixalbums together, five of the Denver cult group’s members departed inthe space of just nine months, leaving front man Grant alone.Disillusioned, he pursued a new career in Russian interpreting for atime before being persuaded to record a solo album by acclaimed Texanfolk-rockers Midlake, who also volunteered to play with and housetheir friend for free.

The resulting Queen Of Denmark was universally lauded as one of thebest albums of 2010. A wonderfully accomplished collection ofbittersweet, elegant songs inspired by a combination of Grant’s oftentortuous upbringing in the American Midwest as a gay child in areligious household and the classic soft rock of the 1970s, itestablished its creator as one of the most original artists around.

Eighteen months later, a packed Royal Festival Hall gives anindication of how far the Michigan native has come. Grant doesn’tmake the best of first impressions with a poor taste introduction tohis first song in which he expresses his hope that certain individualsfrom his past “end up in a wheelchair”, but that’s just about the onlyoff key moment in a truly outstanding performance.

In a set of nearly two hours, we are not only treated tonote-perfect renditions of almost all of the Queen Of Denmark’sexquisite tracks, but also re-worked versions of several Czarsfavourites with a couple of new songs from Grant’s forthcoming secondsolo album for good measure. Midlake are on stage for much of theevening, but the star of the show also goes solo at times too,offering a neat contrast and showcasing his impressive piano playingand singing voice.

Ah, that voice. On record, Grant’s rich baritone glides smoothlyover the lush musical backdrop that characterises his work,complementing rather than dominating the sound. Live, it’s arevelation; a beast of rare power and poise, it switches effortlesslyfrom languid croon to operatic soaring, revelling in the wide openspaces that the Festival Hall provides.

Picking out highlights from a display of such sustained quality isdevilishly difficult. New song You Don’t Have To, another example ofGrant’s mischievously dark humour featuring some marvellously over thetop vaudevillian keyboard flourishes, bodes well for his next release.Silver Platter’s irresistibly toe-tapping Beatles/ragtime hybridstomp is as infectious as ever, a solo piano performance of OuterSpace is wonderfully expressive, and violinist Fiona Brice’s deliciousharmonies help carry off a superb TC and Honeybear.

It’s perhaps the closing Queen Of Denmark title track that bestcaptures everything that’s great about Grant. Starting off with themarvellously wry couplet “I wanted to change the world/but I could noteven change my underwear”, a graceful, maudlin piano melody slowlybuilds up to a defiant crescendo, with three members of Midlakesimultaneously smashing the drum kit cymbals with evident relish asthe crowd rises to its feet to applaud. They are spoilt by no lessthan four encores, including a final, heartfelt Little Pink House –arguably the criminally underrated Czars’ finest moment.

Throughout the evening, the towering, avuncular Grant is acommanding presence who is clearly having a ball, sharing witty banteras well as genuine affection and respect with his fellow musicians.It’s clear they love working and performing together, and when theresults are as enjoyable and memorable as this, long may it continue.

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