In case you need reminding after all these years, Grace Jones isn't like us. If, halfway through her astounding show last night at the Hollywood Bowl, a flying saucer had descended from above and carried her away, few in the crowd would have been too surprised.
She is, and always has been, the Other, a transcultural singer and performer whose post-disco work in the late 1970s and 1980s merged bass-heavy Jamaican dub, grooving New York City dance music, funky British post-punk and even a little French chanson to create a sound that's as sturdy and vital today as when it arrived.
Few artists command the microphone and the stage as Jones. It makes you yearn for a world in which Madonna were the one-hit wonder with Jones occupying the World's Most Celebrated Diva throne. From her odd accent, which has tinges of French, British and Jamaican patois within, to her carved, menacing face, to those legs, which seemed forged out of steel, Jones somehow seemed too small for even the Bowl stage.
She began the set draped beneath a glimmering silver sheet, her nine-piece band offering “This Is,” from her most recent album, Hurricane. As the music grooved, Jones moved her arms beneath the fabric like an android ghost. And then, all at once, she pulled it off and there she was, this statue of a human, still as solid and impressive as her “Warm Leatherette” days.
Dressed in what is best described as “35th Century Trojan Woman” get-up, Jones' mere presence was jaw-dropping, and as the night proceeded and she moved through her repertoire with complementing costumes, it was hard to imagine how she'd one-up herself. After each song she exited the stage, her microphone still hot, and as she changed costumes she spoke to the crowd. He deep contralto voice echoed up the incline like some sort of Godess commanding her people. She acknowledged Michael Jackson, her mother in the crowd, her son in the band. All the while you could hear her rustling into the next outfit.
Yowza. More than a few eyeballs popped out when the singer returned for “My Jamaican Guy.” She donned some sort of Native American Cheerleader get-up or something — I don't know — and she wore it like a weapon, with a defiant and proud energy. The band — sturdy bass, two guitars, keyboards, drums, congas, backing vocals — filled the basin with a steady, rhythm-heavy vibe as Jones turned her back to the crowd and pumped her skirt tassles to reveal her (very well-toned) ass. Oh yes.
She left the stage again.
During this break as she changed she talked about Paris, about her son (who's the band's percussionist), and, again, you could hear some rigorous, breathy clothes-changing going on. The band began the diva's commanding take on “La Vie en Rose.” And then, lo, she entered as a rose, scooted across the stage as the audience gasped in disbelief.
Then, rather coyly, she turned around to reveal that her costume was backless, and we were treated to a full shot of Grace Jones' bare body from the back. Wow. It was sheer spectacle, and coupled with Caribbean rhythms that somehow managed to carry the weight of the visuals, a synesthetic sensation. One of the testaments of her music last night was that it constantly — and surprisingly — succeeded in supporting such a eye feast. Another amazing thing was how dexterous Jones is on 8-inch heels.
Throughout the night Jones had, if we're counting correctly, at least six amazing costume changes. For her take on Roxy Music's “Love Is the Drug,” she came out as a sparkly bubble woman with a mirror-ball bowler hat that reflected onto the Bowl shell a million points of shimmering green light. (A mirror ball hat!!! Genius!!!). She was an S&M devil for “Devil in My Life” and “Demolition Man.” She dedicated “Libertango” to Astor Piazzola while in that spider-esque get-up.
If there was a criticism of Jones' set, it was that the between-set transitions could have been a little more seamless. A few times there was a little more silence than there needed to be, and it would have been a better musical performance had Jones and her band offered better segues between songs. But that's a minor quibble. So commanding was her performance last night as she stomped around the Bowl stage in high heeled boots that would have sent lesser humans like Shaquille O'Neal or Martina Navratilova tumbling into the crowd. She made opener Of Montreal look like Liluputians.
You had to feel for Of Montreal to a certain degree. Though a nice ratio of the crowd was excited to see the Athens, Georgia glam pop band, the majority here were for one towering reason only. No doubt Of Montreal realized this, because for their 15-song set, they pulled out all the stops. In addition to the six musicians, the band also brought a virtual acting troupe who performed silent skits during the songs. It was a valiant effort, for sure.
Of Montreal plays an updated version of glam rock, one that's catchy and striking on record. Depsite the sheer volume of people and activity onstage — including a marriage proposal (accepted!) between band members halfway through the set — the band had a rough time filling the Bowl with sound. They were good, and they were working hard, but at times it felt like all the activity surrounding them was a decoy, a tacit acknowledgment that they needed a bunch of make-up, outfits and antics to compete, as if without them Of Montreal would be revealed as merely a capable and above-average guitar band.
Which, you know, more power to them for their wild imagination and desire to step up and do something big. But even the arrival of the exceedingly charismatic and talented singer Janelle Monae, who came out for her two-song duet with Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes with a pair of pugs, wasn't enough to make too big an impression on the Bowl crowd.
More successful was LA band Dengue Fever, who were making their Hollywood Bowl debut. The band, which combines 60s & 70s Cambodian pop with American guitar rock and fantastic polyrhythms, filled the stage, and the Bowl, with their music. They felt and sounded perfectly at home on the big platform, and the crowd, nibbling on their cheese and crackers and sipping their white wine, seemed to really enjoy their set.
It's a good thing that both Dengue Fever and Of Montreal went on before Grace Jones, though. She towered above her openers like Godzilla among Tokyo high-rises. In fact, LA is just lucky that as she left the stage after a memorable version of “Pull Up to the Bumper,” she didn't grab the Bowl shell like a croquet wicket and carry it back to Paris with her.
Grace Jones' Set List
1. This Is Life
2. Williams Blood
3. My Jamaican Guy
4. La Vie En Rose
5. Love is the Drug
6. Corporate Cannibal
7. Devil in My Life
8. Demolition Man
11. Pull Up to the Bumper