John Grant singing the songs of Patsy Cline with Richard Hawley and his band was always going to be a great opening act for Manchester’s newest venue, Aviva Studios. Heralded as part of Manchester International Festival, the musical pairing is not as off-key as might first appear: Grant has the southern lineage to Cline and Hawley the musical one.
Grant arrives on stage on a jacket garlanded in sequins while Hawley and the band arrange themselves around him, troubadour Hawley sitting silent throughout the set sending out baritone guitar chords.
The singer is charm itself, regaling the crowd with tales of his strict Methodist upbringing and how he was first introduced to Patsy Cline’s songs. His voice is perfectly suited to her songs of loss and heartache, by turns mournful and plaintive – it’s a wonder he can bring out the joy in regret and loss so evocative of country and western classics.
Cline’s catalogue is mined with perfection and a little hint of crowd-pleasing: Crazy, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Strange, and I Fall To Pieces are all included. As is Walkin’ After Midnight, which Grant declares to be his favourite cruising song.
The control in his voice is what sets Grant apart from his contemporaries and which has found a natural home in Cline’s songs full of yearning and remorse for a lover who has left for another.
He tells us the idea came to him after his manager asked if he he wanted to do anything different this year, adding that Hawley was a natural choice for a backing band.
The entire set is signed and although relatively short at just over an hour, Grant and Hawley return for a blazing encore.
As for the venue itself, there’s not an awful you can say about a building Charles Jencks would have probably described as a dumb box. And for an intimate set such as this consigning the majority of people to the stalls seems counter-intuitive.
Quibbles aside, Grant and Hawley – and Hawley’s accomplished band – bring a fresh sensitivity to the songs and perhaps a new audience for Cline herself.