John Grant with Richard Hawley and his band (on guitar and lap steel Shez Sheridan, master of keyboards John Trier, Dean Beresford on drums and on bass Colin Elliot), brought their tribute to Patsy Cline to a sold-out Barbican for a night of memorable songs, delivered without irony – both musicians clearly love their Patsy Cline – but also, thankfully, without reverence.
On the blue-lit stage a man with an amazing baritone, in the glitteriest suit this side of Nashville raided a back catalogue that would fit into a small CD box set for the well-known and the moderately obscure, stringing the choices together with jocular asides and explanations of why they were so significant to him. And it’s no real surprise that John Grant would be here singing a showcase of Patsy Cline songs, there were, after all, several covers of songs associated with her that appeared as B sides of singles by The Czars and were then collected together as part of the album ‘Sorry I Made You Cry.‘ So clearly a long time fan, yet Grant’s path to Patsy Cline is less typical than might be imagined as he noted, “This is a special night for me, I was late to the Patsy Cline game,” before explaining that he spent the 1980s listening to every British synthpop band it’s possible to name. Unusually his path to Patsy Cline was via movies – in 1978 he saw the remake of ‘King Kong‘ which featured Jessica Lang who clearly made an impact as Grant then explained that he went on to see many of her future films such as ‘Tootsie‘ and, more relevantly, ‘Sweet Dreams‘, the Patsy Cline biographical film.
For all that Grant might poke mild fun at songs like ‘Walking After Midnight‘ – the first song about cruising, he notes – there is a world of aching, longing and heartbreak in these songs that Patsy Cline recorded. And that whole dictionary of metaphors for longing is prominent on the song Grant dedicated to his sister, and fellow Patsy Cline admirer, Sue who was in the audience. ‘Just Out Of Reach‘ is solely about unfulfilled longing, as Grant sings in his rich baritone “Just out of reach, of my two open arms” it’s enough to make a heart melt.
And then Grant shifted from the sublime to, well not quite the ridiculous but an unusual comparison for lost love. Channelling his inner Frasier Crane he introduced the song with “As I look out into the audience I see many of you are wearing shoes – you will want to pay especial attention to this song which is about…shoes.” It’s an upbeat honky-tonk which seems to revel in a strained metaphor for lost love and being replaced by another “But them shoes don’t fit me anymore / They lost their shape when I lost all that I cared for / And someone else will fill the shoes that I once wore.” It’s a nice change of pace, lightening the mood despite its theme.
Naturally there was plenty of space for the “headline” songs – although again playing to his comic side Grant confessed that “I didn’t think I wanted to do it and you’re going to think I was…” and made a big missing word gesture before adding “because it has become more and more beautiful every time I do it” – as he then launched into perhaps THE Patsy Cline song, Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy‘. And of course that first thought puts Grant in good company: “I don’t care what you say. I don’t like it and I ain’t gonna record it. And that’s that” is Patsy Cline’s attributed comment when first having the song pitched to her. John Grant is proven correct though – it is a beautiful rendition. As was the take on another big song, ‘I Fall To Pieces‘ swooped and swooned as it should, and was all the better by resisting the temptation to mimic Patsy Cline’s vocal mannerisms.
John Grant and Richard Hawley had chosen to cover a wide range from Cline’s oeuvre – ‘Heartaches‘ is almost throwaway in its light hearted approach to emotional pain, sliding as it does into the kitsch, but for every such there’s the surprising delight of a song like ‘Strange‘ with its almost ’50s jazz feel – it also earned its place on the set list because Grant acknowledges that it was a big influence on a song that he wrote whilst in The Czars. It’s a moody masterpiece with bottomless depths of reverb guitar as well as a clopping piano riff and an almost western-swing feel to the drumming.
If ‘You’re Stronger Than Me‘ was a blatant attempt by Cline to repeat the success of ‘I Fall To Pieces‘ – they really do sound very similar – then ‘Seven Lonely Days‘ shook things up a bit with a rock and roll delivery which also allowed Grant to demonstrate his dance moves – it would be wrong to say that he duck-walked, but in his clear enjoyment he certainly strutted a little.
The last song of the main set, the mildly rockabilly of ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky‘ also gave the band their first chance to really show what they can do – as Grant left the stage they continued to play an extended coda, taking the tempo and the volume just a bit higher than had been the case through the set. It served to emphasize the extent to which these songs are about the words and the vocal delivery – the backing music being fully in service to those two priorities.
For an encore, we were given The Czars’ song alluded to earlier as having been influenced by ‘Strange.’ And there is plenty of influence on show on ‘Paint The Moon‘ – the same aching sorrow and yearning, although the subject matter, inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone, couldn’t be more different. The final song of the evening ‘If I Could Only Stay Asleep‘ was introduced as “Truly my favourite song of hers“, the piano line echoing the sound of falling leaves a particular feature singled out for praise. And it is lovely, and everyone had a great time but what these last two songs really highlighted was the desperate need for a night of songs by The Czars, one of the great “never made it” bands. That’s for the future though. This had been a great night, which underscored dramatically – if it was needed – that John Grant posses one of the great voices of the early 21st century. He could sing the ‘phone book (and to be fair he almost did on his song ‘Marz‘) and it would be worth hearing, but he has a real feel for the nuances and subtexts in Cline’s songs that made this performance shine.
The opening support came from Bob Harris favoured Lauren Housley, who, like Richard Hawley, hails from Sheffield. She’d just flown in from Americana Fest in Nashville, but there were no signs of any jetlag. She enthusiastically regaled us with anecdotes – the best of which was that Lucinda Williams had been sat in front of her during her showcase set in Nashville – and observations between her songs that fall at times fully in the Country camp and occasionally, such as on ‘What’s Troubling You Child?‘ into a soft rhythm and blues vibe. The poppy ‘This Ain’t The Life‘ was, Lauren noted, her take on the themes of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5‘, whilst ‘Sing To Me‘ was a lovely adult lullaby.