Review: John Grant – Open House Festival, Bangor

Open House Festival are legendary on the NI music scene for bringing both big name and quirky acts to these shores, with previous gigs under their belts from acts such as – Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, Seasick Steve, Mumford and Sons and Jesca Hoop to name but a few. Having moved the festival to Bangor since 2013, the organisers have undertaken to bring it back to life, and this years festival is located in various locations around the seaside town, with tonights show slap bang in front of the marina. It’s quite a small venue for an outside gig, but that only adds to the intimacy of the show, and it is well organised with plenty of opportunity to refuel on both food and drink, as well as boasting a great view of the marina and Bangor town. And the toilets!! Actual clean, public toilets instead of portaloos are a complete joy. But I digress.

Tonights star is maverick singer songwriter John Grant but to open the show are the Open House Festival choir, led by Katie Richardson, and better known as Goldie Fawn. The choir is made up of everyday people with a love of singing, and they perform as openers for many of the gigs, singing modern songs by artists such as The Staves, Fleet Foxes and Duke Special.

katie richardson - open house 2018

open house choir 2018

Second on the bill is another local lass Hannah Peel. Although now based in Manchester, she has recently been nominated for the NI Music Prize for her album Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia. Sadly we only caught the tail end of her set due to car issues (it’s all glam here) but being lucky enough to have seen her live before, I am certain I missed a great set. She is one of the most talented people in music at the moment, and is making a name for herself and representing this neck of the woods, so I recommend checking her out.

hannah peel - open house 2018

hannah peel - open house 2018

John Grant takes to the stage shortly after 7.15pm and opens with ‘You Don’t Have To’ from his 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts. There is a slight swelling of the crowd as people extricate themselves from the bar to take position for full view of the stage. Thanking us for being here, Grants baritone voice is a warm burr filling the nippy sea air, and as he sings ‘Outer Space’ it envelops us in a hazy bubble. He appears affable and happy to be here. On ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’ Grant evokes shades of The Carpenters and carefree happier times in childhood, and this is welcomed by a chorus of cheers at the beginning of the song.

john grant - open house 2018

Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ from the 2015 album of the same name is a sombre offering in which Grant tries to pull him self up out of self pity by asserting others have it worse, often very candid about his battles with mental health and addiction and ageing. ‘TC& Honeybear’ is a song about love and loss with a 70s prog-lite sound which puts me in mind of the Alan Parsons Project. It is a beautifully emotional song with Grants swirling piano playing filled with sadness.

This is followed with ‘It’s Easier’ which continues in the vein of non-typical love songs, dealing with doubt and fear of intimacy. For such tough subject matters Grant deals with his music is never outright depressing and there lies a kind of lyrical dissonance which makes it easy to listen to. Checking in with us all to see how we are doing he introduces his five piece band including drummer Budgie – ex Siouxie and The Banshees.

john grant - open house 2018

GMF’ gets a roar from the crowd as the opening bars are played, and again, it comes across as a tender ballad until the chorus where the acronym becomes clear, and everyone sings along loudly with “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet”. There’s just something cathartic about singing swearwords loudly and it’s evident on the happy faces surrounding me that others feel the same. Grant takes advantage of the good mood of the audience to play a new song from his upcoming October album Love Is Magic and it is very synth heavy and sounds like something from a 1970s tv soap opera; in short, it’s great and is well received by the crowd.

This is followed by ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ from the eponymous 2013 album. This is a clear winner with the audience as it borders on electronica with its rhythmic beats and dark sound deftly topped with Grants mellow voice weaving the hypnotic melody. Just in time a flock of gulls fly overhead and the sun is going down in the distance. It is a magical moment.

The mood is down shifted with ‘Glacier’, which is ostensibly Grant imparting wisdom gleaned from his experiences of being gay and growing up in a religious household. It is funny, moving, angry and touching all at once with lines such as “Don’t listen to anyone; get answers on your own even if it means that sometimes you feel quite alone” something which is sure to resonate with anyone who grew up feeling an outsider or they didn’t ‘quite’ fit in.

Queen of Denmark’ is next and it is a pithy and caustic ode to a former lover and the audience join in on the chorus of “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else? ‘Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else? Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish, A weakling, coward, a pathetic fraud?” as let’s be honest, most of us resonate with songs about bad relationships and breakups. This theme continues in his last song, ‘Vietnam’ where he compares his lovers silence to the Agent Orange used in Vietnam. It is a powerful lyric but this is typical fare for Grant.

He leaves the stage to shouts and applause and we are all aware there is time left on the clock so hope for an encore. And we are right, back he comes and plays ‘Caramel’ which is certainly his love song extraordinaire and it’s extremely touching to hear a man sing so openly and tenderly about his love of another man, especially given the lack of marriage equality here.

The keyboards combined with Grants piano lend the song a cosmic timeless feel and it is beautiful. This is soon followed by ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ which balances humour with raw pain of teenage love and a soaring melody line. The set is finally ended on ‘Black Bird’ from Pale Green Ghosts and it gets us all having a final little shimmy with its dance beat and electronic stylings before Grant promises to come back next year to see us all, and if the honesty and vulnerability of his lyrical stylings are anything to go by he will.

A superb show by the wonderful Open House Festival yet again.