Review by Elaine Downs
Scotland has many fine songwriters, and many fine singers, but few match James Grant’s mastery of both. He is an evangelist of the acoustic guitar with a heart stoppingly powerful baritone voice. He has written myriad songs for bands, for himself, for his friends; such is his proclivity for songwriting there’s an abundance to choose from.
So there was a tension in the audience at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Friday as they wondered what the programme would hold. No-one could have been disappointed as he included songs from the full range of his solo work and also some Love and Money classics. As he told me later “I do really want people to have a good time, and I’ll go out of my way to make sure I do that.”
Tonight he has chosen to share the stage with Donald Shaw, a supremely talented Scottish musician and producer, and Fraser Speirs: Patron Saint of the Harmonica.
Grant explained: “Donald Shaw had been involved on my records for a long time. I write a lot of songs for his wife, Karen Matheson, of Capercaillie. We’ve played together on a lot of different projects- he’s a really brilliant musician. Fraser Spiers I’ve known for about 25 years and he’s a force of nature on the ‘moothie’.”
From the album My Thrawn Glory, we were treated to the title track, followed by I Can’t Stop Bleeding from his debut solo album Sawdust in my Veins. Here the majestic piano accompaniment complemented the melancholy guitar and powerful vocal.
The beautiful Walk the Last Mile With You was delivered as a tribute to the late Bobby Paterson from Love and Money. A change of mood came from the wonderfully upbeat Long John Brown Loved Little Mary Bell which showcased Spiers’ skills on the harmonica.
Grant’s songs are written with such insight and intelligence that they resonate with everyone. They have become emotional signposts throughout our lives marking the lost loves and simple joys we encounter in a lifetime (lets face it – most of us don’t write poetry ourselves – we need Grant’s unique ability to share his own and others poetry, and to write beautiful lyrics from the heart without sounding ’phoney’. I asked him how he felt about this after the show, and he replied, “A great compliment is when people ask me ‘How do you know me so well?” “Some songs are written with literal truth that people identify with. Others have more ambiguity and that allows people to make them their own and put their own meaning to them.”)
Grant’s preoccupation with sex and death were a theme running through so much of his music and fuelled Pappa Death which he describes as “one of the grimmest songs you’ll ever hear”. Happily, this is tempered by a black humour that he sprinkled liberally through the show to lift the mood. Speirs’ mastery of the harmonica produced, in Pappa Death, unearthly sounds that I’ve never heard from that instrument before; the magician of the moothie conjured up tumbleweed blown by desert winds on a wet Edinburgh night.
James Grant is of course renowned for his time in Glasgow band, Love and Money. The band got back together in January this year to play an emotional reunion at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections and soon after packed the Clyde Auditorium.
He has obviously enjoyed his time with the band again, as tonight’s show was peppered with more Love and Money tracks than would normally grace Grant’s acoustic shows. Happily his solo work was by no means neglected with his most recent solo album Strange Flowers represented by the richness and depth of Darkstar, the chilling strains of My Fathers Coat and on a lighter note Scarecrow Song, a singalong drinking song that the audience happily contributed to.
Another highlight of the evening for me was a song he described as “Fraser and I’s party piece.” An outstanding acoustic version of the Love and Money classic Looking for Angeline, surely the harmonica was never put to such good use. An absolute delight.
A surprise treat was History. This forgotten gem was brought out, dusted off and truly sparkled. With its classic chord progression, written with integrity more years ago than I would care to admit, it was captivating.
When a standing ovation brought Grant and his ’Geezers’ back for an encore, he asked the audience for song suggestions. So many and varied were the suggestions from an extensive back catalogue that the debate could have gone on all night. However, he finally settled on No Chicane, a wise choice.
Following, Let the Circle be Unbroken took us to the deep south of the USA. Grants voice was like maple syrup and the upbeat evangelism could have converted any remaining heathens to James Grant followers. Another standing ovation as the noisy crowd showed their appreciation for an outstanding performance.
After the show, I talked to James about the difference between the writing/recording and performing experiences. He told me “there’s really good aspects of them all, but there’s a distinct difference. A performance is a performance. If you f*** up on the night that’s that. You can’t change it. There’s an argument for saying all recorded music is a synthesis, but you still try to get a performance. But you can do it again to get it right.
“Making great gigs and great recordings are two entirely different things; there are some times within both disciplines a kind of alchemy happens, that’s what you’re looking for.
“Love and Money have just made a new album – it’s a big bold record, that was what we wanted to do at that given time. But a couple of records ago I released a record called Holy Love. I recorded seven drum tracks and didn’t use any of them. I wanted it to be more acoustic. You just want to do what’s right by the music. You try to do the songs justice in the way you want to put them across.
“What I did tonight felt really great, it felt right. Last week I was rocking with the band, that felt right… I’m really lucky there are different aspects to what I do. I love the diversity. I enjoy what I do, I can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s why I’ve been put on this earth.” No argument from tonight’s audience there.
See www.jamesgrantsongbook.com for acoustic tour details. The Love and Money Album The Devil’s Debt is scheduled for release in August 2012.
- Watch our interview from December: James Grant reveals all about Love and Money reunion – and band’s new album