It’s the personal nature of Grant’s shows that makes them so successful.
How would John Grant feel if I told him his show last week at the Doug Fir was better than the Madonna concert I attended earlier in October? You can take all the money in the world and throw it at spectacle, but it doesn’t come close to the emotional peaks and valleys a John Grant concert affords.
Grant is a performer who seeks out personal connection with his audience. Whether it’s a wry grin, a grasped hand or an honored request, Grant knows not only how to work up his people but also how to pull the heartstrings and tickle the funny bone if I may tiptoe into cliché for a moment. For 100 minutes (about 45 shorter than the show he gave on the Pale Green Ghosts tour), Grant played a set that mainly encompassed songs from new LP, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, a funky excursion into absurdism and dark humor.
After beginning the show on the keys with two of the album’s slower songs (the title track and “Geraldine”), Grant spent most of the first set sans instrument at the microphone stand. Backed by a four-piece band, including former Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie, Grant concentrated on the faster, funkier tracks from Grey Tickles, busting out the grooves for the sublimely strange “Snug Slacks” and singing about deserving a relationship with Hitler on “You & Him.” One of the early highlights came with “Disappointing,” a take on “My Favorite Things.”
Seven songs into the show, Grant finally reached back with “Pale Green Ghosts,” driving the crowd into a frenzy. Men outnumbered women by what seemed 20 to one, many of them making out or grinding close together during the show. Even though the club had double the attendance from the last time I saw Grant there, he still hasn’t seemed to break out of his demographic—which is almost criminal. Anyone who is a fan of self-reflexive, literate lyrics and strong melodic hooks should look to Grant’s music.
Things slowed down for a bit with “Glacier” and “Queen of Denmark,” two emotionally charged songs that stood in contrast to, yet fit in perfectly with, what came before. Grant returned to the keyboard for “Denmark,” punctuating the song’s crescendos with precision. He brought the tempo back up again with the final two songs of the set, performing his much-loved “GMF” and the ridiculously bizarre new song “Voodoo Doll” before bidding us all a good night.
Longtime fans who may have been disappointed by the lack of older material in the first set were likely thrilled by the encore. Beginning with the beautifully sad “Marz,” Grant then played “Drug,” a song from his former band, the Czars. At this point, the crowd began shouting out song titles and Grant honored one of the requests by playing a solo version of “Sigourney Weaver.”
At this point, I shouted out “Where Dreams Go to Die,” letting my excitement get the better of me.
Grant looked at me and furrowed his brow. “We haven’t played that one in a while,” he answered.
“So what?” I shouted back, completely out of character.
He looked like he would consider it and then began to play “Caramel.”
After the song ended, he told the band to stay and announced that they would be playing “Where Dreams Go to Die.” No signs of rust. It was soaring and magnificent. And it was how he chose to end the show, turning to point at me as soon as it ended.
It’s the personal nature of Grant’s shows that makes them so successful. Madonna may have put on a longer, more expensive and more spectacular concert, but I felt a mile away. Here, I felt a connection. I am sure many of the other people who turned up felt the same.