John Grant - Shepherds Bush Empire, 15th May 2013 1

John Grant – Shepherds Bush Empire, 15th May 2013

There isn’t a spare seat in the Shepherds Bush Empire tonight. From the top level of the venue right down to the densely packed standing-room only floor the whole place is a sea of heads. Some are craning their necks over balconies, others squeezing into tight pockets of available space that have become vacant as the previous occupier has begun an arduous trek to the bar after succumbing to their need for a beer and thus giving up their prime spot to see John Grant perform on the Empires stage.

Last time Grant performed here it was a different affair with rows of polite seating filled by an audience all there to hear the songs from Queen of Denmark, the 2010 masterpiece documenting his experiences with sexuality and drugs whilst growing up Colorado. Whilst Musically Queen of Denmark was indebted to 70’s FM folk-pop and singer-songwriter warmth with echoes of Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot and Todd Rundgren filtered through Midlake’s production (they acted as his backing band as well) and Grant’s honest and, at times, harrowing lyrics. The recently released ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is an altogether different sound with bold electro-pop and pumping synths taking up most of the background in place, a tribute to the electronic new-wave that soundtracked Grant’s teenage years and the sexual and narcotic hedonism that followed.

With a full band on stage every corner of the Empire is filled with the chunky synths and strict drumbeats of opener ‘You Don’t Have To’. Mixed with Grant’s lyrics of a relationship crumbling due to excess it has a fantastic blast of overpowering, woozy keyboard that sound like a Wurlitzer being played in a nightmarish funhouse. Early highlight ‘Vietnam’ is a jazzy torch song, anchoring Grants rich croon over the subdued drums and basslines that allow his stunning voice to gently soar as the lyrics of a lovers indifference hit like a gut-punch.

The first (of many) huge cheers erupt as the solemn opening notes to ‘I Wanna go to Marz’ echo around the venue, weaving in and out of the audience who are mesmerized by the song, its lyrics a list of ice-cream flavours that serve as a metaphor for childhood innocence. John Grant is a captivating frontman throughout tonight’s Two hour set, either sat at a bank of keyboards or tightly gripping the mic-stand as he sings eyes closed. At one point the lights go down and the ocean of devoted fans turns into a black abyss, giving the visual impression of Grant alone, singing to an empty venue.

Grant however is as far from a po-faced performer as you will find. Whether flirting with the crowd or dad-dancing throughout ‘Sensitive New-Age Guy‘ he is great company and a great host to this, the most wonderful of gatherings. Before he plays ‘Ernest Borgnine’ the song written after his HIV diagnosis Grant cuts through the seriousness of his intro of the song with a thoroughly filthy joke about the veteran actor and his wife (of 32 days) Ethel Merman.

Queen of Denmark‘s title track still remains a highlight in a whole set of musical and lyrical gems. Building to a crashing chorus that channels the grandeur of Queen. Its message of self-affirmation in the face of emotional adversity is a defiant fuck you and serves as the best musical middle finger ever, made even more remarkable to witness with the dramatic eruption of John Grants live band giving it their all during the explosive choruses.

After a four-song encore including the sublime ‘Sigourney Weaver’ and the gorgeous love song ‘Caramel’ its over. For two hours the crowd has been enchanted and left satisfied by one of the most enchanting singer-songwriters of recent years and the sea of glowing faces leaving the Empire tonight attests to the importance of hearing, and seeing John Grant.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.