Malojian provides the sunshine, John Grant the expletives, as CQAF celebrates the songwriter
I haven’t seen support act Malojian for some time, but Stephen Scullion’s Paul Simon on Sunny D sound is more effective than ever, presented here as a pared down three-piece – just guitar, stand up bass and violin. It’s both spare and lush, and this backdrop reveals Scullion’s voice to be a thing of wonder; golden as an egg over easy, casual as his double denim.
His delivery is precise but never cautious, the songs delicate and ornate, spangling rays of Californian sunshine, subtly underscored with a mordant tone. It's Jackson Brown sings Leonard Cohen. He may need to work on his between song banter though; Scullion sounds like somebody trying to get a parked car moved over the PA at a funeral.
If Malojian are about sun in a wine producing region, then John Grant is all about big, bruised skies over Northern Europe and the harsh grain liquor used to combat the numbed extremities. He cuts through a thin mist of dry ice in a snug t-shirt and is instantly companionable, his voice a sonorous rumble – think John Goodman in Barton Fink without, hopefully, the head in the box.
First song, 'You Don’t Have To', is pretty much a statement of intent, Grant’s gorgeous basso profundo listing his drunken romantic disasters over a glacial sea of analogue synths, his keyboard player throwing shoulder shapes like it was 1983 and he was Nick Rhodes. And it might as well be.
Grant’s voice pans in and out, drenched in textured reverb and chorus effects. A weaker voice would be lost but there is enough grist – enough, dare I say soul – to weather any amount of sonic trickery. And the sound in the Black Box, Belfast is razor sharp tonight, managing both the pristine poignancy of Malojian and Grant’s stentorian beeps and bleats with equal aplomb.
For the slow groove on 'Vietnam', Grant steps back, wobbling into the back-line. When his voice cuts through on the key-change, hairs stood up on my arms like meerkats taking deportment lessons. It should be ludicrous, a Westlife moment where they rise to their feet in unison and belt it out to the fade. It isn’t ludicrous; it’s fantastic.
Crowd pleasing swearathon 'GMF' comes next, the fizziest earworm on Grant’s newish album, Pale Green Ghosts, and probably the only one that would have sat snugly on his 2010 album, Queen of Denmark. It sees sporadic outbursts of singing along amongst the audience, a respite from the angsty torch-singing that makes up most of tonight’s set. (That is in no way a dis – no one likes a cathartic wallow in the slough of despond more than I do, especially when it’s as heroically performed as this!)
'Ernest Borgnine' is a case in point, a soulful rumination on Grant’s relationship with his religious mid-western father but set against a two-fingered digital new musik epiphany – his affiliation with nu-pop tones is a surprising twist for one of the emotionally subtle singers of the last decade. It works. Where the last record was an ersatz Jimmy Webb album, this is like nothing you’ve heard; glacial but warm, distant but intimate.
Grant’s charming too, as the between song patter falls drolly out of his mouth. 'I Hate This Town' was, apparently, influenced by Abba’s 'Chiquitita', he claims, specifically Frida’s hand-clapping style.
There are a couple of older songs kept back for the encore, including 'Marz', his paen to the ice-cream shops of his youth, but it’s 'Glacier' that really, truly closes the show, as it does on the album. The song is so huge that it destroys everything in its path. Once Grant has sung this song there is nothing left to sing. As he sings it tonight, his impossible voice is planet-sized, tidal. It’s devastating.
The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 12.