Review: Grace Jones in Elder Park

When Grace Jones last performed in Adelaide in 1982 she was well on her way to becoming one of the decade’s defining music and fashion icons. Returning to open this year’s Adelaide Festival, Jones shows us nothing has changed in a night of artistry, playful transgression and timeless rhythms.

Jones opens with her version of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, the title track to her seminal 1981 record and a perfect bridge to her last Adelaide show. Jones’ face is obscured by a gold skull mask as she sings from a high platform before stalking down to the main stage to deliver hits like Warm Leatherette and My Jamaican Guy.

These early flavours set the tone for an evening that takes us from Paris to Jamaica to New York and back again, all held together by Jones’ magnetic presence — it’s a good thing Elder Park was the setting, because it’s hard to imagine any traditional venue being able to contain her.

An early highlight comes in a new, unreleased song named Shenanigans, which welcomes a body-painted pole dancer named Andre to the stage to gyrate and swing to a gentle Caribbean beat, while Jones eggs him on with lyrics like, “Turn it like a cobra, we get a little lower!” The song climaxes with Jones yelling “Smoke the weed! Get higher! Smoke the weed!”

Set against King William Street workers racing into the night to complete last minute tramworks, and an election season full of expensive pork-barrelling and infrastructure commitments, it’s quite pleasing to think of the vast sums of government money spent coaxing this iconic artist to talk up the benefits of pot to a sea of families on BYO picnic rugs, wealthy retirees and turtlenecked hipsters alike.

Jones struts the stage in a different outfit for each song, a minimalist bodice and body paint combination serving as the foundation for a range of mesmerising looks, from those recognisable shawls to the bedazzled bowler hat that turns Jones’ head into a disco ball. After each song Jones disappears, but her disembodied voice stays with us as she narrates yet another brisk costume change or her internal monologue.

And what a monologue it is. Whether singing the new Adelaide theme song she wrote last night (sorry Ben Folds, “Adelaide, Adelaide, Adelaide, I wanna get laid” wins hands down), or trying to source wine from scurrying stagehands, Jones’ wit and warmth onstage is a revelation you might not expect from the steely-eyed gaze of her album covers and portraits.

“Do you wanna do me?,” Jones asks a member of the audience near the end of the night, before telling another, “I see you looking at my ass… Why not?!” The #MeToo movement might have convinced some commentators that by removing the right of washed up male stars to inappropriately force themselves upon their co-stars, we’ve set course for a new form of cultural puritanism. Well, several thousand people just listened to a 69 year old powerhouse tell us about her need for “sex-ercise” (“Do you know what I mean? Those are the kind of squats I like to  do.”), and it was nothing but empowering fun, and a perfect start to the 2018 festival.

The night peaks during career-defining club banger Pull Up To The Bumper, which sees Jones slither down onto the shoulders of what appears to be an entirely unprepared front-of-stage security guard. Golden ticker tape erupts over the stage as she proceeds to ride the crew-cutted bouncer stallion-like through the crowd, pausing only to bat away the hands of any over-excited fans.

Her signature song Slave To The Rhythm is saved for the finale, held off for a little longer as Jones waits for the crew to sweep ticker tape off the stage, hoping to prevent her slipping in the likely event that she end up crawling along it. It takes a special kind of performer to make 7 minutes of literally waiting for a man to arrive with a broom riveting and hilarious, but Jones does it with ease. And then proceeds to hula hoop for 20 minutes straight, introducing her dynamite band as sparks literally fly from the stage.

“Pray for me, pray for me because I’m a wild, wild child,” Jones says at one point in the night. She’s introducing a brief rendition of Amazing Grace, a tribute to her mother that offers a rare moment of quiet sentimentality in a concert marked by outrageous colour and abandon. She may still seek absolution, but over an hour and a half Jones makes absolutely clear that even after decades as a pop icon, she’s still the consummate wild child.

Grace Jones performed in Elder Park on Wednesday, February 28.

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