John Grant
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John Grant

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John Grant drew something of an ‘older’ crowd to The Toff in Town. He’s an older guy himself, a tidy looking bear who must be skirting around forty, though it’s hard to say. He looks weary and buoyant at the same time; grizzly but playful, like a man who finally got a break, long after he gave up trying. The maybe-forty-something artist is playing in Melbourne for the first time in his life because at maybe-forty, almost two decades since he started out in the music business, he has finally had a break-through record. Queen Of Denmark, his solo debut and the first thing he has released since he quit The Czars seven years ago, was MOJO’s 2010 Album of the Year. All of a sudden, much to his surprise, Grant has found himself on the international radar. As far as most of us are concerned, he came out of nowhere, with maybe forty years of heartache and cynicism up his sleeve.

Grant’s voice is astonishing. Appearing onstage with just a couple of keyboards, accompanied by pianist and back-up singer Chris Pemberton, he opens the show with You Don’t Have To, a bitter tune about false love and failed romance. “You don’t have to pretend to care,” he sings, “It just embarrasses me, and makes you look like a fool.” The piano notes that Chris plays are warm and sweet, and Grant sounds like Neil Diamond – a terribly broken, caustically witty Neil Diamond. His baritone is smooth and expansive; a flawless voice part way between a hum and a hymn, delivering these brutal thoughts in graceful, honey tones.

As the set continues, he explains that most of his songs were inspired by his experience of growing up gay in the Christian Midwest, and the years of confusion and drug-fuelled self-abuse that followed. He jokes about praying his sexual proclivities would change, and chatting up girls while he was “still trying to push things in the opposite direction,” then follows with a tune loaded with self-hatred and regret, or self-conscious irony.

Grant is a lot like Rufus Wainwright, though certainly different in key aspects. The queer outsider theme is obviously similar, though Wainwright’s sense of alienation goes hand-in-hand with an eternal romantic faith while Grant is sour and snarky, full of “Pop Rocks and cyanide” (as he sings during Chicken Bones). What they share is this penchant for seventies-style piano balladeering – an out-dated mode of songwriting that they both revive gloriously, playing beautifully crafted sets filled with distinctive, memorable, slightly camp and often very sad music.

There are moments in Grant’s performance when the light lyrical play doesn’t live up to his voice and those grandiose melodies – tunes likeSigourney Weaver, Jesus Hates Faggots or Marz – but for the most part it’s magic. Hearing his naked soul spill out during Where Dreams Go To Die (“I’m willing to do anything to get attention from you dear”) and Queen Of Denmark (“I really don’t know what to want from this world”), is an achingly lovely experience. Seeing Grant smile as the audience cheers him on makes it that much better, knowing this amazing artist is finally getting his due.

Loved: Chris’ quip when a fight broke out near the door: “Critics.”

Hated: The guy that started the fight.

Drank: I had nothing, the drunk guy had a beer. A whole bunch of beer.