John Grant Strips Down His Latest Songs at Webster Hall: Concert Review

John Grant - P - 2014
Paul Familetti
The former Czars frontman displayed the bare-it-all songwriting that has earned him so many fans overseas.

Gigs with Elbow expose the revered-in-Europe songwriter to U.S. listeners.

"I saw Godzilla on the IMAX today -- it was so f---ing good," John Grant announced upon taking the stage Friday at Webster Hall. That news, and the fact that he had a strong opinion about the previous attempt to reboot the King of the Monsters' franchise ("horrible"), came as no surprise to fans of Grant's recent output. In the span of half an hour here, he sang two songs referring to The Twilight Zone, compared himself to Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and to Winona Ryder in Dracula, and suggested that Hollywood should re-animate Richard Burton if they ever want to make the movie of his life.

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For a man so familiar with fantasy, though, Grant spends most of his time plumbing a very real emotional life. "You Don't Have To," the first song of his set, depicted a bitter encounter with an ex-lover; his closer, the sweepingly expressive "Glacier," compared a conservative town's effect on a gay adolescent to the grinding forces of a slow-moving mountain of ice.

Songwriting like that was only part of what earned last year's album Pale Green Ghosts spots on a slew of high-profile best-of lists: Grant's work with GusGus member Biggi Veira produced a bold strand of song-driven electronica, chilly and dramatic, that served material like the title track especially well. New fans hoping to see this enacted live were disappointed: Grant was joined only by a guitarist and stayed in singer-songwriter mode throughout, employing a laptop only to add a very subtle bass pulse to the final number.

A beefier band might have helped Grant win the attention of Elbow fans who'd never heard of him. (A U.K. headlining tour this November will find him backed by a full orchestra.) On the other hand, newcomers here had little to distract them from the singer's rich baritone, a voice that perfectly serves lyrics whose heartbroken sentiments are often leavened by dry humor and surprising turns of phrase. On "Where Dreams Go to Die," for instance, he admits to the object of his love that "I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye."

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The hints of Harry Nilsson on that song were the evening's strongest reminder of the '70s vibe of Grant's solo debut, Queen of Denmark, a mode he seems to have abandoned since moving from the U.S. to Iceland to record Ghosts. With any luck, America will soon get a chance to experience Grant's more electronic side in a proper U.S. tour.

Set list:

You Don't Have To
Paint the Moon (The Czars)
Sigourney Weaver
Where Dreams Go to Die