In a manner befitting a legendary supermodel, Grace Jones was an hour and two years late to the stage to open her stint as the curator of the Southbank’s Meltdown festival. The series of handpicked events, organised in past years by artists including David Bowie, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Massive Attack (who picked Jones to perform for them in 2008) was supposed to take place in 2020. “Been a long time. Like no time at all,” she said of the pandemic’s stasis. Thankfully her line-up is even fuller than it was when first announced, with the addition of John Grant, Hot Chip & the Kasai Allstars, Sky Ferreira and a second concert from the curator herself.
Those who witnessed this opening night may have jumped straight onto the booking site to try to secure another evening of amazing Grace, not least because the curfew forced her to finish with only a brief a cappella version of Pull Up to the Bumper and she promised to do it properly next time. Before then, the 74-year-old was a tongue-waggling riot in a succession of increasingly outlandish headpieces, orchestrating more than one very deliberate wardrobe malfunction and winding up singing Slave to the Rhythm in an exploded soldier’s bearskin while hula-hooping with her left breast on display.
No one was expecting this sometime queen of Studio 54, Bond girl and Warhol subject to stroll on in her trackie bottoms, but still, she outdid herself. The initial look, in vertiginous heels, dark suit and curved top hat, was stiltwalking funeral director. Later she sported a disco ball bowler hat that refracted laser beams across the hall. She wound up singing the dramatic Hurricane clinging to a pole in a fan-generated gale while a long black cloak streamed behind her.
With an 11-piece band, eight gospel singers and an underused string orchestra in the second half, there were around 40 people on the stage. A long-suffering stage manager was also a frequent visitor, delivering wine with a straw and pages of lyrics to the singer who confessed: “I didn’t do my homework.” Even while surrounded, she sucked up every ounce of attention in the room. Unusually, when she left the stage to fasten another sculpture to her head, the band was silent. Instead she kept her microphone on and carried on talking.
The music was as wild and diverse as the outfits, from the easy reggae of My Jamaican Guy to a punky version of Love is the Drug. One brand new song had a samba rhythm and a threat to “paint you all black.” Another was a slow, atmospheric anti-war song.
It took her a long time to get here, but when she finally left the stage it was with immense reluctance. No wonder she wants to do it all again next weekend.