Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Annihilating rhythms

When, as a teenager, I first saw and heard the video to Grace Jones' career-retrospective song "Slave To The Rhythm", it was a bit like a being the victim of a perverse and forceful seduction.

Not only were Trevor Horn's maximalist production techniques in overdrive (a more lush 80s synth-pop tune would be hard to imagine, and that's saying something) but the imagery was similarly intense--a frenetic and jarring collage of unsettling, sexually charged and almost pornographic fragments of Jones' career and influences. Here was Jones as dissected by the Cubists; slices of photographs assembled to transcend the two dimensions of television and to suggest a dark, sinister energy. Some of it would now likely be deemed "unacceptable" in the wake of the moral hysteria that typified the Henson Affair.

The thing about Grace was that she was here to sell hedonism, yet at the same time make you feel uncomfortable about it. There was an unrestrained joy in her disco and calypso influenced tracks that had a defiantly transgressive side. Yes, you should be having this much fun, and yes, it really is as bad as your parents told you.

That naughtiness is what she gave us, in spades, at the Enmore Theatre last night. Not only was her 60 (or 56, depending on which DOB you believe) year old booty on full show thanks to slinky corset and thong, but the intense vocal delivery, saucy patter and tight musical backing oozed sex. The classics were tinkered with enough to modernise them, but then again the Compass Point sound is now all the rage, so not too much. The new tracks were also reimagined sufficiently to break free of the studio perfection of the Hurricane album ("Williams' Blood" in particular taking on a proggy nu-disco exhilaration pilfered from some of its better remixers).

In just under 90 minutes she cracked through 14 songs, a little wobbly for the first half hour but then feeding off the vibe of her captive audience to rise to brilliance for the rest. "La Vie En Rose", more torn from its roots in Edith Piaf's oeuvre than ever, was as heartfelt and overpowering as you could hope for (she preceded it by saying "Paris is love, and love is fucked up sometimes", so you get the idea). "Pull Up To The Bumper" was pure post-disco escapism, with Grace pulling 30 or so audience members on stage to gyrate with her. And "Love Is The Drug" was given the kind of angry beating it deserved.

If the music was great, the visual show was even better. Not just Grace's personal theatrics, but 13 changes of headwear--masks and hats applied offstage between tracks by her travelling milliner, while she drawled heavily into the mic with her musings--and a theatricality that should probably be called cinematic. A movie set wind machine, another fan blowing from below, and a zillion pieces of confetti sprayed over us all. Then there were the laser lights scattering off the disco ball hat and the hula hoop spun relentlessly, flawlessly, mesmerisingly about her waist through the entirety of "Slave To The Rhythm". At the end of the encore she battled her "Hurricane" until she finally disappeared, stage left, and denied the rapturous five minute ovation that demanded her return. Whoa.

For all the lewdness and humour, the confronting edge is still there. This is how I like to have fun on a weeknight, losing it to Grace Jones. Surely nothing could be more right. And surely I'll be punished for it all the same.

Songlist @ Enmore Theatre, Sydney 13.1.09

This Is Life
My Jamaican Guy
Sunset Sunrise
Libertango (I've Seen That Face Before)
Love You To Life
La Vie En Rose
Well Well Well
Williams' Blood
Amazing Grace (acappella interlude)
Private Life
Pull Up To The Bumper

Love Is The Drug
Slave To The Rhythm


  1. was a great show wasn't it. Grace is still rude as fuck and the music was strictly dubwise.

  2. nice review and Great show indeed, I didnt know much of Grace's songs before but I definitely felt the disco vibe of her songs even if the old ones were slightly 'revamped'. The head pieces were amazing imo

  3. The old ones were surprisingly similar to how they were when they were old. The early 80s Compass Point sessions tracks sound just as amazing today as they did then... and the disco flavour is filtered through a new-wave sensibility with heaps of dub influence. I've had them blasting my room for a few days now to recapture the excitement. :D

    Her new album sounds more "modern" but really stylistically isn't miles ahead of those recordings. It's a really great album, however.