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John Grant with the Royal Northern Sinfonia - Royal Festival Hall, 30/11/14

02 December 2014, 17:00 | Written by Sofie Jenkinson

There are some things that are impossible to do justice to. And this is one of those nights. A magic meant only for the four looming walls that barely contain it. John Grant looms gently from a stage littered with bodies, takes a heavy gulp of warm, smoky air and gives his heart on a platter.

The entire evening is gilded with a glimpse within, from the simplest of desires and fears of a human soul to complexity of growing up thinking you weren’t normal. Lyrics are peppered with memories from childhood sweetshops, obsessions with 70s hair products and a constant unquenchable inquisitiveness of himself and the rightness of the world.

But despite the rawness of so many of the words, he’s relaxed, he’s funny, he’s warm. He’s exactly the person you think you know. And even starts by dedicating the show, the last for Pale Green Ghosts, to people who’ve been a constant source of inspiration to him. “This is where we played the last show for Queen of Denmark too”, says Grant, “So it’s great to be back home here in London.”

Grant is a veteran in creating his form, with ten years in The Czars, two studio albums also a solo act and one recent release with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in the same format at his shows with the ensemble he’s with tonight – the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

His booming chuckle punctuates the end of each joke he tells and hits the walls as often as his well-timed expletives do. He jokes: about being intimidated by people disciplined enough to play in an orchestra; about his drummer being kept behind a plastic screen to stop him attacking the timpani player; about people being late - he heckles later comers (“You’re just in time ladies!”); and about whether Ripley ever had a mullet in Alien, as he serenades the tiny picture of Sigourney Weaver stuck to his piano.

Second song in and “Vietnam” stands back, giving space to the orchestra and revealing the truth depth of Grant’s voice. While always booming and impressive it really does take something special to hold up an entire stage of sound, but he does, and does so incredibly.

There’s a grand piano centre-stage, the lid pulled off revealing a belly of hammers. As he sits at the piano, jacket off, staring at Sigourney, he transforms again. As “Marz” rains across the stage with its quick wit and intonation, he moves throughout the menagerie of instruments, unable to keep his hands off them.

“It Doesn’t Matter To Him”, the first track that really uses the room for what it was made for, is followed shortly by another new song. “I have a habit of writing songs to people, to celebrities, who are dead…”, notes Grant as a delicate piece about Geraldine Page (“Geraldine”), which feels like it’s straight from a score from a film, rolls across the stage. It’s hopeful in swoops, which glide into a still, glistening river of deep red.

“Pale Green Ghosts” is in a magnificent disguise at first as the brass-section take the spotlight, following shortly by the strings. It’s a soundtrack to a tentative walk down a dimly lit alley, which stops for a second as familiar notes start to drop in. It’s perfection, but one you never knew you craved – it forms an unlikely yet perfect recipe with the lights pulsing on the orchestra as each wave passes.

As anyone who’s ever tried to create anything knows: it’s a battle. And Grant goes into this battle with good grace and guts. And like everything Grant does this evening is a carefully put together tapestry, of different textures and tones.

The pace changes constantly, as Grant moves from grand piano to synth to standing stoically at the mic – sometimes it’s bare bones, sometimes it builds to a moment of explosion and sometimes this clutch of talented people bring about a song you had no idea how to imagine that they could tackle in the way that they do.

In-person or on record there are always some particularly stirring seconds in Grant’s music, as if soft light hits the right note just at the right time. This performance is littered with them, signposting you to the moments where your heart feels like ripping through your ribcage. It’s in the tiniest of moments, in one word of a whole song sometimes. And while “GMF” remains as cracking as ever, it’s the shallow scale in “course” as his voice moves “I play the underdog of course….” that cuts right to your core.

It’s so easy to love Grant. He’s been there with you through those darker times, and he’s really thought about everything quite thoroughly and beautifully. He’s wrestled with a lot, that much is clear in the struggle and context in which his songs sit. He’s full of his own vision but unassuming at the same time, constantly walking a line between art itself and the art of living.

“Glacier” is a moment within moments. As Grant sings “This pain/It is a glacier moving through you/Carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes…So, don't you become paralyzed with fear/When things seem particularly rough…” the Royal Northern Sinfonia transform this already huge and moving song into a symphony worthy of Richard Strauss. While “Caramel”, on which the show ends, is maybe the most natural fit to an orchestral context, holding up and transforming Grant’s vocals and the purest walking piano to a completely showstopper. It leaves you thinking: it’s amazing what humans can do, but it’s more amazing what they can do together.

In all, it’s a masterpiece in the beauty of pain. And from the simplest key to the most complex phrase, it’s utterly beautiful from the first note until the last breath.

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