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Ian Wade , December 10th, 2014 14:11

Ian Wade reports on the Czars frontman's collaborative performance with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Southbank Centre in London

The history of musicians working with, well, proper musicians, or as John Grant calls them: "People who have discipline", is long and troubled. For a while, any two-bit DadRock effort was deploying a string section as some form of gravitas, to broaden their thin gruel into something vaguely stately. For examples of where it actually works and enhances both parties, you could start at Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed in 1967 and waltz through to some of Rufus Wainwright's early 00s offerings or Efterklang's recent works to show that it can be amazing.

Now, add to that list. Or even to top that list and become the collaboration-with-an-orchestra that all other collaborations-with-an-orchestra call "Sir", is John Grant, who via the help of Music Beyond Mainstream - who tend to specialise in putting bills together slightly off the circuit - toured with Royal Northern Sinfonia. They themselves have previous form in this area, having worked with Pet Shop Boys, Joanna Newsom, Efterklang and Spiritualized in the past.

Along with his mainly Icelandic band - he introduces them by exquisitely announcing their names. They've been with him on the ride too, and complement superbly with the additional strings, flutes and timpanist muscling in. 

To say that the combination of Grant and an orchestra was inspired is to put it mildly. From the beginning of 'It Doesn't Matter To Him' through to the final number 'Caramel', they aid and bolster Grant's songs into the grand pieces they should be. With selections from two albums (Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts) that detail how all men - or at least one particular man - are bastards, with their bluntness and sweary observations, the songs selected evolve into something even mightier.

'Pale Green Ghosts' itself - introduced nicely with a snatch of Rachmaninov's 'Prelude' in C sharp minor - is monumental. It could've gone on for another half hour and it would still not have been enough. If 'Glacier' had previously failed to make you cry, then this rendition would have you sobbing. Such beauty, and broad, elegant wonder. There's also a rare performance of 'JC Hates Faggots', which even has one of the violinists singing along to herself.

There's also a hint of where he may go next, with new songs 'Global Warming' (inspired by Facebook), 'No More Tangles' (shampoo metaphor for life) and 'Geraldine' (based on a fascination with actress Geraldine Page), all showing that there's more delights to come should he work with an orchestra on album number three, or go directly into full-on immersive electronic wonkiness.

This concert marks the last night of the collaboration and also the last gig of Pale Green Ghosts, an album that first appeared on the horizon when the title track arrived almost exactly two years ago. In those two years, Grant has consolidated his position as a wonderful thing, taking it from small club tours, to higher billings at festivals and along with word of mouth in general, he can now truly be counted as one of the greats in his own right. He genuinely seems touched by the sheer amount of love in the room.

It's probably my gig of the year. And yes, I know in the year Kate Bush hit the road that's asking for trouble, but hey. Completely incredible.