This isn’t the first time a contemporary male vocalist has performed the repertoire of a long-gone female musical icon – Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland concerts being, arguably, the most well known. It’s clear these are passion projects and Grant’s love and respect for the material and artist is abundantly clear the moment the show begins.
The band assemble, followed by Richard Hawley in a powder blue Western jacket and sunglasses, and John Grant, looking fabulous in a black rhinetone suit. ‘Crazy Arms’ begins with a lazy country rhythm and Hawley doing his best Duane Eddy-style heavy reverb solo. Grant’s voice is rich and makes a perfect fit for the material. He tells us “We’re going to sing a few songs before getting into the nitty gritty.”
There’s a slight yodel in Grant’s voice on ‘Never No More’ and the five-piece band get to stretch out on the bridge. Grant explains how his obsession with Patsy Cline began in the 1980s when he was mostly listening to electronic bands. He saw Jessica Lange’s portrayal of Patsy in the film Sweet Dreams and was hooked.
Guitarist Shez Sheridan switchs to lap steel for ‘Walking After Midnight’ and adds a glide and twang to the authentic arrangement. Grant’s voice is very much in the traditional country style and sits somewhere between Glen Campbell and George Jones in tone. He informs us that the song probably contains the first mention in popular music of dogging or cruising.
Grant’s between-song chats are as funny as the music is amazing and he tells us that the next song, ‘There He Goes’, contains the subject of ‘heartbreak’ – a theme that runs through the evening. ‘Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)’ highlights Grant’s strong, clean voice as he holds the notes to a vibrato finish with Hawley happy to take a back seat as a member of the band. It would have been great to hear them duet but it was not to be.
There were no Jordanaires-style backing vocals for ‘Shoes’ but Grant is more than able to carry the song alone. The horrors of gossip on a relationship are covered in ‘Loose Talk’, a jaunty 1950s romp with Hawley letting rip on his solo. Before ‘I Fall To Pieces’ Grant explains how he and his sister bonded over the song in the Sweet Dreams film. A more gentle pace features rimshot drums with Hawley so laid-back to be almost horizontal. Grant says it’s Richard’s night off and he’s just sitting there looking pretty.
We are teased that ‘Strange’ influenced a Czars song that will feature later but he doesn’t divulge the title. This has a dark bubblegum pop style, reminiscent of Bobby Vee and is dedicated to Bella Union mainman, Simon Raymonde. There’s heavy reverb from Hawley on ‘Sweet Dreams’ which Grant starts with a long high note and continues with a country warble. It’s traditional country embellished with Hawley’s otherworldly shading.
‘So Wrong’ is another heartbreaker ballad exquisitely performed while Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ is delivered with passion – think Elvis singing ‘If I Can Dream’. The next song was introduced with “if this one don’t kill ya, I don’t know what will” and the brushed drums and soft playing of the band added to the heartbreak of ‘Leavin’ On Your Mind’.
We learn that ‘Crazy’, Cline’s best known song, written by Willie Nelson, nearly didn’t make the cut but it does and Grant says he loves it more every time he sings it. The tempo speeds up for ‘Seven Lonely Days’ with a rocking rhythm and honky-tonk band break. The set closes with ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ featuring finger-picking guitars, Grant on full yodel and Richard Hawley knocking out his first showy solo. There’s a standing ovation that brings a quick return for an encore of the previously mentioned Czars song ‘Paint The Moon’ and his personal favourite ‘If I Could Only Stay Asleep’.
What, in a lesser man’s hands, could have been a self-indulgent performance was nothing less than an absolute triumph, with Grant doing both himself and Patsy proud. Let’s hope there’s a studio album or live recording to follow.
Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Friday 22nd September 2023
Photos by Francesca Moore