James Grant & The Hallelujah Strings at Celtic Connections – Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow – 3rd February 2023
Glasgow’s James Grant is a singer-songwriter and musician, who represents all that is most inspiring and emotionally moving about contemporary music, both on record and in live performance. Through his work with the bands Friends Again and Love and Money, and a wonderful collection of solo albums, and captivating live performances, he has truly captured the hearts of his audience. Tonight, James is playing at the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, in Glasgow, as part of the Celtic Connections festival, now in its 30th anniversary year. This is the first of two nights at the venue, both of which are completely sold out. He is accompanied by the wonderful musicians of The Hallelujah Strings.
Opening the show is singer-songwriter and keyboards player Beth Malcolm, accompanied on guitar and vocals by Heather Cartwright. The second number of the set is a version of Norah Jones’s stunning cover of the Jesse Harris song Don’t Know Why. It is a beautifully understated version that allows the poignant words to gently flow over the keyboards and acoustic guitar.
Leavin’ Loch Leven, the first single from Beth’s forthcoming debut album, tells the story of female friendship in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and demonstrates a compelling storytelling voice that ebbs and flows with the words. Kissed and Cried, based around a touching note Charles Darwin left for his wife Emma after his death, is accompanied by a lilting guitar backing, with Beth’s voice articulating the deep emotions with an incredible vocal range that seems to float around the majestic walls of the Kelvingrove venue.
The closing song of the set is John Martyn’s May You Never, which is imbued with a sense of joy, connection, and warmth, just what this great song deserves. Heather’s guitar work embellishes the song with some fabulous, clipped rhythms. There is sustained applause for this excellent opening set, and Beth’s debut album is a release to certainly look forward to.
James Grant in grey waistcoat and black shirt, sits on a stool with his acoustic guitar, in front of the four musicians of The Hallelujah Strings, and begins his set with the sublime I Can’t Stop Bleeding, from the Sawdust In My Veins album. This is followed by an exquisite version of Whisky Dream, from the recently reissued Love and Money album Dogs In Traffic. The Hallelujah Strings gently accent the elegiac words of this gorgeous song, as James’s voice ascends and soars, filling every space in the magnificent hall of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
James’s self-deprecating and winning humour permeates the set, as he compares his career decisions, with the Glasgow urban myth that the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was accidentally built back to front. Looking For Angeline follows, another song from the Dogs In Traffic album, and delivers a wide soundstage and cinematic quality, through the shimmering string accompaniment. The song’s coda atmospherically leaves acoustic guitar notes hanging in the air.
Two new songs are introduced, which evidence the continuing quality and vitality of James’s songwriting. What Do We See When We Look At The Stars? showcases a poetical flow of words, as the strings flow around the lyrics with striking cross-cutting melodies. All My Sins Were For You, James reveals was written while imagining Johnny Cash singing it. The Hallelujah Strings conjure up the image and sound of a John Ford film allied with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. James’s voice is full of expression and as ever feels completely authentic in the emotions conveyed. The audience are asked, “Are you enjoying it so far?” to a resounding yes.
Jacqueline’s Shoes, from the My Thrawn Glory album, is spectacularly good. If you thought it was not possible for a string quartet and acoustic guitar and solo voice to play a funk-imbued classic, then think again. Lips Like Ether, a reverent and tender Love and Money classic, is a set highlight. The strings gradually build behind that fantastic voice, as the evocative words tumble off the stage:
“I’d never allow anyone to shelter me
I chewed the words till they sounded like lies
But then you came, kicked down my door
And I saw you shine like a lighthouse on the shore. The sunrise in your smile”
The attention of the audience is completely held in the song, as James closes his eyes, and his voice lifts off, carried with grace by the melancholic strings. A spine-tingling moment and the audience’s rapturous applause echoes around the hall.
Sometimes I Want To Give Up, again from the Dogs In Traffic album, is a very welcome addition to the set. The rhythm and blues guitar instrumental workout counterpointed by the strings raises an already great song to another level, bringing out some delightful jazz-styled harmonics.
Walk The Last Mile, from Love and Money’s Strange Kind Of Love album, is touchingly dedicated to the recently and sadly departed Tom Verlaine, from the band Television. Interestingly James reveals that Tom Verlaine had produced Friends Again and that they had performed together on The Tube, a live music show from the 1980s. It is a heart-wrenching vocal and a fitting tribute to an amazing musician.
Strange Kind Of Love, that album’s title track, seamlessly follows on. The strings and acoustic guitar, and without a band, give the song a lovely lament-like quality, and literary resonances of a Dashiel Hammett story. Jocelyn Square, from the same album, has the strings creating a baroque-like feel, cutting across the dance-like syncopated rhythms of the guitar and voice. James closes the song with a vocal improvisation quoting Odyssey’s Going Back To My Roots. On the Strange Kind Of Love live in Glasgow album, James informs the audience before playing Jocelyn Square, “I used to pass by this place every day and I found it phonetically appealing”. Hard to think of a better reason to write a great song, and this is a thrilling live interpretation.
Winter, another significant song in the Love and Money canon, closes the set. Beginning with just guitar and voice, when the strings join, and the song moves into the chorus, it is a musically heart-stopping moment. The merging of classical music sounds with a soulful and captivating song, is a creative triumph and a fitting conclusion to the set, which the audience reward with a standing ovation.
An encore of three songs brings an evening of superb music towards its inevitable end. The Love and Money songs You’re Not The Only One and Halleluiah Man are succeeded by a solo vocal rendition of Nature Boy, where you could literally hear a pin drop amongst the audience. This is a concert to remember for many years to come and to truly savour the moments from. I hope this review will encourage you to seek out the recorded music of James Grant and to also go and see him live. You are guaranteed to fall in love with his songwriting, musicianship and vocal performance, which speak directly to the heart.
Photography by Gareth Allen.
With thanks to Anne Robertson.
Categories: Live Reviews