John Grant The Railway Club, Vancouver BC, June 22
Published Jun 23, 2013Backed up by pianist Chris Pemberton and four guys from Iceland there to help realize his alternative singer-songwriter vision, John Grant was a captivating performer. He endeared himself to the crowd early, noting how happy he was to be back in the home of Skinny Puppy, of whom he has remained a fan since his youth, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Grant's banter could confuse the smile on a Bozo The Clown Bop Bag, alternately droll and devastating. He humorously detailed the Denver-based story behind "I Hate This Town" with an ode to the stiff clapping style of Frida from ABBA, which he parodied during Pemberton's jaunty piano solo, and dedicated "GMF" to people who could love themselves a little less.
The most heart-wrenching moment came when Grant went into a long rant about his decade-long midlife crisis, called "grey tickles" in Iceland or so he was informed. In this, he brought up his being HIV positive, his recovery from substance abuse, and anti-gay laws being passed in Russia, and then went into a story about meeting and hugging his cousin in Portland the previous night. Grant had received word that, on the morning of this performance, a drunk driver had struck and killed his cousin. This set up a gripping version of "Glacier," the closing track from Grant's recent album Pale Green Ghost, which was written to express that, although the world is such a fucking toilet, the only way to deal with it is to keep showing up. When "Glacier" exploded at its crescendo, it was a perfect storm of power and poignancy, a moment beyond us all.
It was clear long before the drunk driver story that Grant has been through a lot in his almost 45 years on this planet. His voice is a snarling baritone, like Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies with the gristle of life experience attached to the throat of a late-career Johnny Cash. He employed a tasteful vibrato in the middle of his range. Granted, he did sound a touch out of place on tracks like "Blackbelt" and "Sensitive New Age Guy," which hit a tech-noir electro-pop vein that was somewhat incongruous with the rest of his deeply felt and selflessly delivered set, but the variety of content, from the sober synth-folk of "Vietnam" to the Stevie Wonder like funk of "Chicken Bones" and the almost stadium rock balladry of "Queen of Denmark," was impressive. Coming across like a dystopic version of "Up Where We Belong," "Where Dreams Go to Die" closed the set on a perfect note, with equal parts soul-searching introspection and dramatic flourish.