Keeping up with the Jones
Grace Jones at Vivid, Carriageworks, Sunday 31 May 2015

Grace Jones is sui generis. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna: none of them are imaginable without Jones having gone before, melding pop music, high fashion and theatrical spectacle. There is really no one like her, and, at age 67, the accolades are still coming her way. Her concept album Slave To The Rhythm – which combines snippets of interview material, autobiographical commentary and eight variations on the same song – turns thirty this year. BBC Films is funding a feature-length documentary on her life and work, and her 1970s disco albums Portfolio, Fame and Muse have been given a lavish box set reissue.

Pop is still running to catch up with the woman whose captivating androgyny and haughty yet amused attitude make her seem like an alien, arrived from some better future. Perhaps only David Bowie has rivalled Jones for sheer beautiful weirdness. Her music, too, particularly her run of early 1980s albums made with the legendary Compass Point All Stars band, sounds as pristine as it ever did, a fluent combination of reggae, disco, funk and rock. (Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem, among others, owe a great deal to her sound.) “What did you want to be when you were seventeen?” asks the English music journalist Paul Morley on Slave To The Rhythm. “Not bored,” answers Jones, and her life, from Jamaica to New York to her beloved Paris – where she once worked as a runway model – has been a long and grand refutation of the mundane.

On Sunday night she arrived at Carriageworks, a cavernous concrete room, for the first of three performances as part of Sydney’s Vivid Festival. (Pet Shop Boys put in a similar headlining run at Carriageworks for last year’s festival, which makes me wonder: which 1980s gay icon will Vivid secure next year? Erasure? Marilyn?) Of course, Jones kept us waiting (she is notorious for her tardiness), but when at last she materialised, it was with all the panache that you might imagine: draped in a black cloak and golden skull mask, purring out her version of the Iggy Pop and  David Bowie song ‘Nightclubbing’.

The stage was plain (for $130 a ticket, you might have expected a backdrop, at least), and her five-piece band were subdued. All the more reason to keep one’s eye on Jones, and Jones alone. She was a one-woman lesson in unshakeable, celebratory self-confidence; beneath her cloak was nothing but a corset and some strategically placed body paint. “No surgery!” she exclaimed, pointing at her bare breasts. “Just 60 push-ups a day. I’ll do more if somebody’s underneath.” Then followed the husky, generous Grace Jones laugh.

Several songs in her set were taken from Nightclubbing, her biggest-selling record, including the fabulously suggestive ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, which the crowd seemed reluctant to sing along with, in spite of Jones’ encouragement. (“Pull up to my bumper, baby / And drive it in between” — yes, perhaps it does take poise on Jones’ own level not to blush, singing those words.) It took her and her band a half-dozen songs to warm up fully, and the frequent costume changes, while entertaining, interrupted the pace. Still, by the time she got to ‘My Jamaican Guy’ Jones was in full flow, her grin a mile wide; she followed up with ‘William’s Blood’, from her 2008 album Hurricane. “Why don’t you be a Jones / Like your sister and your brother Noel?” she sang imploringly, arms aloft, channelling her strict Pentecostal father. No danger of that. God save Grace Jones. Long may her unorthodoxy prosper.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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