Haunted by John Grant’s live ghosts

The calibre of John Grant’s baritone is matched only by his searing onstage honesty

John Grant works his magic at Dublin’s Vicar Street. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

John Grant works his magic at Dublin’s Vicar Street. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tue, May 7, 2013, 16:53

John Grant
Vicar Street, Dublin
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Some songwriters have little problem documenting their woes and joys, but when it comes to John Grant, not to do so would be removing the very thing that defines him: honesty in all its harsh light and starkness.

In 2012, the then 44-year-old Colorado songwriter revealed his HIV-positive diagnosis on stage; earlier this year, he released his second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts , which documents the foundering of a relationship. The songs on the album are so angry, bitter and eloquent that the initial response of the listener is to gasp at its directness; Grant has a way of saying things that less brave people, perhaps, would surely love to, if only they had the courage.

On stage, the writer of these bitter letters from the heart is a big, bearded man radiating warmth and generosity. With a set culled from Pale Green Ghosts and his 2010 solo debut Queen of Denmark , the show might be short on performance pizzazz and panache, but the quality of material is so high, the Icelandic/English band so emphatic, and guest vocalist Sinéad O’Connor so exquisitely empathetic, it doesn’t matter.

Grant is eager to explain the origin of the lyrics, and there is more between-song details than is usual, but the way Grant tells it is the difference between real-life story and soap opera. Lyrics as confessional as “you think I hate myself, but it’s you I hate because you have the nerve to make me feel” ( GMF ), “the only thing that brings me any comfort is the knowledge that no matter who you’re with you’ll always be alone” ( Vietnam ), and “the knowledge that I can’t be what you need is cutting off my air supply” ( Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore? ) highlight an artist that, by perhaps applying a rigidly responsible code of honour, has dispensed with sentiment and insincerity.

Grant ends the show with two spectacular songs: Glacier (from Pale Green Ghosts ) and Caramel (from Queen of Denmark ), each of their serrated emotional edges underscored by what is surely contemporary music’s most thickly honey-coated baritone.