Even if you’ve seen her perform before, it’s always genuinely astonishing to see Grace Jones in the flesh. The imperiously beautiful face with sculpted bone structure Nefertiti herself would envy; the taut and sinewy Amazonian limbs seemingly carved out of ebony. Onstage Jones is completely mesmerizing (and, at 62, eerily ageless). Her sexy but sinister and androgynous persona suggests a combination of dominatrix / alien / android and warrior.
Like her January 2009 gig at The Roundhouse in Camden, the Royal Albert Hall show melded tracks from her majestic 2008 comeback album Hurricane with classics culled from her essential trio of early 1980s recordings Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life; songs which don’t just still sound modern, they still sound futuristic.
Thirty minutes later than scheduled, the curtain fell to reveal Jones isolated onstage entirely concealed within a silver tinfoil-like burka. She sang the opening song “This Is” from inside it, throwing art-y sculptural shapes within its folds. Withholding her appearance when everyone was gagging to see Jones made for a dramatic entrance but the song was a good five minutes long: you kept expecting her to burst out of her shroud but she stayed inside it for the entire duration of the song. Not being able to see her became anticlimactic, creating a sense of impatience.
When she unveiled herself from her burka, Jones was revealed in a brown and white striped catsuit that turned her into human / zebra hybrid, with a waist length mane of platinum white albino hair: the first of an amazing series of costumes by Eiko Ishioka, which included a black and red PVC catsuit and mask combo that turned Jones into a Spiderwoman/Medusa combo, and ancient Egyptian pharaoh chic.
(Ishioka’s costumes cleverly evoked memories of Jones’s key looks and images over the years. The brown and white stripes of the zebra catsuit recalled photos of the late Keith Haring transforming a nude Jones into a Masai warrior with white body paint).
For the first part of the RAH show the choice of song sequence felt disjointed and abrupt. And while her costume changes were remarkably speedy (her band continued playing, extending the ends of songs, and Jones herself kept up banter from the wings while changing) so many pauses couldn’t help but disrupt the momentum.
Keeping the band virtually concealed at the very back of stage was an odd choice (at first I feared she was performing to musical backing tracks until I started seeing the tops of the musicians’ heads bobbing on the horizon). It meant no opportunity for interaction or chemistry between Jones and her (awesomely tight and versatile) band, but then traditionally when a diva like Marlene Dietrich performed her musicians would have been hidden in the orchestra pit with her the sole focus onstage, so it did make a kind of sense.
The gig was also bedevilled by a surprising amount of technical glitches: no fan positioned where it should be (“I may have legs like a racehorse, but I don’t like to sweat,” she grumbled), no stool placed centre stage for the mournful ballad “Sunset, Sunrise”. The video for “Corporate Cannibal” stopped playing midway through the song. The eerie lookalike mannequin she was meant to tango with during “Libertango” was missing (which makes you wonder just how chaotic and disorganized it was backstage for such an important prop to be missing in action). “This is the Royal Albert Hall!” she fretted. “This isn’t supposed to happen at The Royal Albert Hall!”
(Corporate Cannibal costume)
They hardly mattered though, when Jones and her band were on such fierce form. As the gig progressed things began to flow better, sustaining a sinuous and alluring mood and Jones herself was utterly magnetic. Her bossa nova-tinged disco interpretation of “La Vie en Rose” was tender and dramatic.
(Note: for this number Jones wore an outrageous exploding flame burst orange dress and headpiece; towards the end she began twirling, revealing it was backless and she was naked except for a g-string. Except for anyone in the front you could clearly see she was in fact wearing a bronze catsuit that zipped down the back!).
Jones tore into the autobiographical “Williams Blood” like a tigress, working herself into a rage recalling her strict religious Jamaican upbringing. Both “My Jamaican Guy” and “Pull Up to the Bumper”, meanwhile, showcased Jones at her most warm, frankly lewd, relaxed and funny.
A hard rock “Love is the Drug” with green lasers pointed at the mirrored surface of her silver bowler hat, transformed Jones into a human disco ball.
Jones often makes musical and sartorial references to iconic chanteuses like Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. She’s one of the few modern performers who belong in their otherworldly company. Seeing Jones live is a reminder she is the modern equivalent of a Dietrich or Baker: she transfixes and seduces us the way they did for earlier audiences.
(Marlene Dietrich in drag in Seven Sinners)
(Grace Jones playing tribute in the 1980s)
See more of my photos from the Royal Albert Hall
My pics from the January 2009 gig at The Roundhouse.