In the majestic GMF, John Grant croons “Half of the time I think I’m in some movie/I play the underdog of course.” If he was to be classed as said underdog, this would be the triumphant finale that leaves the audience weeping with joy. In fact, nearly every song towards the last half an hour of this astonishing performance is greeted with either a partial or full standing ovation from the stalls to the boxes.
The entirety of the Pale Green Ghosts tour has seemingly been building towards this moment; for his final UK victory lap, he has teamed up with the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra for a week-long tour to present a show that encapsulates everything that’s compelling about his music, from drama, via humour to heartwrenching emotion. It’s one of those rare gigs that lives up to its tantalising promise.
Grant’s heavily candid lyrics have always been his trump card in a crowded room of singer-songwriters. Whether he’s paying tribute to Sigourney Weaver or quietly conveying anger on You Don’t Have To, he is commanding in just about every sense of the word. When the bombast is turned down a notch, the likes of Marz, Where Dreams Go To Die and Fireflies bring out the best of his rich vocals.
He looks like a man immensely comfortable on stage and delighted to be playing with an orchestra in tow, and even the four new tracks that he airs suggest that he’s heading in a more playful direction. No More Tangles, about complex relationships, borrows is title from a 1970s American hair product whilst the soaring Geraldine imagines Grant having a heartfelt conversation with actor Geraldine Page. Global Warming, which deals with internet commentators, is delivered with all the biting satire that he can muster. Then there’s Black Blizzard, which has the potential to be one of the most scary things he’s ever written. That song aside, and with the backing of strings and horns, the newer material is warmer and lighter, especially when compared to the icy, electronic-based works that have won him a wider audience in the last couple of years.
All of that being said, composer Fiona Brice’s arrangements help to make his existing material sound far bigger and grandiose than on record. It’s hard to convey just how breathtaking the last minute or so of Vietnam is, other than that it sends a multitude of shivers down the spine. The slow and steady ascent of It Doesn’t Matter To Him is equally something to behold and the extended intro to Pale Green Ghosts, as well as its proggy bridge, is pure, unadulterated bombast. And this is all before the extraordinary double whammy of Queen Of Denmark and Glacier that close out the main set. The latter in particular is performed with such grace and poise that it’s enough to make even the coldest of hearts melt within the safe confines of the vast auditorium.
Everyone seemed to know that they were in for something special, yet no one was prepared for just how outstanding this collaboration turns out to be. There’s no one quite like John Grant, and it’s entirely possible that the Royal Festival Hall will not see a night as magical as this for some time.