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John Grant at the De La Warr Pavilion

The De La Warr Pavilion is a curious venue. It is a similar size to the Corn Exchange or Dome in Brighton and possibly boasts a better sound system. And yet, due to its location in Bexhill, an awkward hour away from Brighton, it remains undervisited. Is this due to a lack of familiarity with the place? Or are people put off by the train “service” provided by Southern? The last train back to Brighton can sometimes leave people scrambling out of a gig before the encore has got going.

The last few gigs I’ve seen here – Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel – still had tickets available on the door. Had these bands been playing in Brighton, there is no doubt they would have sold out. If I’m not mistaken, John Grant’s last gig in Brighton was a sell-out too, but again that was not the case here.

It’s a shame for those who weren’t in attendance as they missed a cracking gig, but it did mean that there was a little extra space for dancing for those of us who were there. And with some of the tracks from last year’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure hefting around an extra slab of funkiness, the room to maneuver was well utilized.

He opens with ‘Geraldine’, a strong pop ballad from the latest album that evokes some of the finer moments from his first two solo works, before moving into ‘Marz’. In the auditorium, its piano notes sound as fragile as falling leaves, backed by guitars and synth that swell like the sea that laps against the shore outside.

Grant’s voice is another instrument. On record, it sounds smooth and rich, but none of his recordings do justice to its depth and power here. A range of emotion is on display during ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’, songs concerned with aging and heartbreak respectively. At times his voice carries a stunning anguish while elsewhere it is achingly tender. On all occasions, his vocals are arresting.

Combined with this tenderness is an irreverence that is scattered through his lyrics. This combination makes him one of the most human performers, despite the fact that he could easily be put on a pedestal above all other artists. As he sings himself, he is the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever going to meet.

This leads to witty standout tracks ‘G.M.F’ and ‘Queen of Denmark’ being met with rapturous singing along. Grant pauses to allow the crowd to finish the latter song for him, bringing one of the most winning smiles you could wish to see to his bearded face.

But he’s more than just a lovely, hairy man you’d want to hug. Newer songs like ‘Snug Slacks’ and ‘Voodoo Doll’ not only get the crowd dancing but provide Grant with an opportunity to shake it like a polaroid picture himself. His hip-shaking was infectious, and carried the fun of the songs on to a different plain. After a few listens to the new album, I hadn’t been entirely sold on these tracks, but here, backed up his seductive shapes, I was converted.

As good as he sounds on record, John Grant’s songs are taken to another level when played live. It certainly helps that his backing band are superb. Most notably, the drums are manned by the legendary Budgie, renowned for his work in Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Slits. The crowd understands that they are in the presence of one of the world’s best, and chant his name accordingly.

The highlight of the set is undoubtedly ‘Glacier’. The song is haunting, beautiful, and finds an extra poignancy in the current political turmoil we find ourselves currently. Grant is quick to point this out before playing before quickly adds “or not,” as ever keeping himself open to all listeners. Even when on the cusp of performing his most powerful statement, he retains a modesty that makes his stellar singing human.

This is the key to me with seeing John Grant live. His songwriting skills and musicianship are incredible. It would take no great leap to imagine his songs being woven into a musical that could keep Broadway and the West End sold out for months. Most performers couldn’t dream of being able to do what he does. And yet, as he lists off the idiosyncratic things he likes in main set closer ‘Disappointing’ – roller coasters, baby animals, walking in Central Park – he’s just like any one of us. This is what makes him truly special.

He finishes his encore with two slower ballads, ‘Drug’ and ‘Caramel’. It is as if he has tucked us all into bed after a joyous and emotional night out. The odd slip up on the keys during the final song encapsulates all that has come before and made it wonderful. Where other performers would grimace at their mistake, Grant turns to the audience at smiles. Here is a man with his wrinkles, but rather than running away from them he turns to embrace them, to work through them, and make something out of them. The resulting art is beautiful indeed. Beautiful, personal, and welcoming.

Words by James McIntosh