July 30, 2009: Grace Jones Live at the Hammerstein Ballroom (Concert Review)

“I can die happy now,” shrieked the giddy, overweight man flailing over to my left as she slowly began sashaying away from the stage. I am dead center in a room of roughly 500 occupants at the Hammerstein Ballroom, standing directly against the banister in front of Grace Fucking Jones.

As Michael and I approached the venue, we realized the audience was like nothing we’d ever experienced before. In fact, the only thing I could say as I marveled at the crowd was “This is the gayest crowd I’ve ever seen.” “I’d literally seen no more than five to ten women scattered between the vast sea pf graying leather daddies, retired club kids, and small, concentrated spurts of lost-looking twinks. After some quick visual calculation, we deduced that Michael and I were literally at least twenty to thirty years younger than anyone at the venue.

At the same time, this was one of the most authentic, old schools-New York experiences I’d ever encountered. After all, half of these men were probably seated in the audience during Grace’s stints on nightly disco specials in the 1970’s. As I thought about the history of it all, an aging Grace impersonator walked up casually and stood in line next to me–decked out in a full, semi-circle headdress (with matching clutch), dark sunglasses, the signature Nightclubbing jacket as worn on the album cover, and large dangling earrings. “WORK!” he’d yell from time to time at passersby as we waited to be let in. Hot.

When we got in (well, ran in), we took our place at the banister and stood facing a black curtain for two entire hours. Opening extra, extra late (this is Grace Jones we’re talking about), the curtain slowly, mercifully rose around 9PM to reveal a towering statue of silver fabric in the center of a live band. “This Is Life” kicked in, and Jones’ unmistakable voice kicked in from beneath the fabric. For five entire minutes, Jones stood there, teasing us occasionally with an outstretched hand and a quick jerk of the fabric. It wasn’t until the last few seconds, as the crowd’s pleading cheers and whistles grew to a fever pitch that the reveal came: With one hurling cast-off of the silver drape, the statuesque beauty leapt down from her podium in a full black-and-white striped bodysuit and a massive headdress fitted with long, platinum hair. I, along with many other full grown men (and a woman or two) shrieked with unparalleled delight.

Words can’t describe encountering Grace Jones in person: She’s as stunning as she is on her covers, perhaps even more so. For a full two minutes, she stood at the front of the stage, posing in silence as the crowd manically hooted and hollered. Had I known that this would be her tamest outfit on the tour, I probably wouldn’t have taken so many photographs.

After a brief introduction and some initial diva griping, (“Where is my black sheet? I will not sit on this box unless my black sheet is here”), she sat down with her legs spread as “I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)” began. Suddenly, something stole her attention from stage right. “Fix that curtain!” she growled to the stage-hands as the music began to swell. The curtain remained untouched. She grimaced at the sight of it and held a hand in front of her face, as though that mere sliver of light threatened to melt her where she sat–a diva through and through.

After a quick change backstage, out came Jones again, wearing what appeared to be two giant, glittery couture chicken legs and matching hat. As a laser beam shone down and broke light into a thousand different directions, the pulsating, familiar sound of “Love Is The Drug” stormed into the ballroom, I realized that this was what a Grace Jones song sounded like in person. Hearing the music I’d only heard performed on vinyl and CDs translated into a live, full band interpretation was worth the price of admission alone. And that voice?! It wasn’t even like she was trying–throwing her head back and leaping through scales as though it were child’s play. There wasn’t a single bum note in the mix (but there were a whole lot of masterfully improvised riffs and deviations). She was, without a doubt, the best vocalist I’d ever experienced live.

“Bring me my drink!” she barked into the darkness after “Drug” started to fade. Out scurried a fearful assistant, holding–what else? A glass of red wine. The legend surveyed the drink and, after an initial gulp, swallowed it all down. “Who wants a glass?” she implored. She’s not going to throw a glass into a crowd, I began thinking to myself. But before I could finish the thought, there it was, an empty wine glass shooting across the ballroom. From what I could gather watching the crowd’s tumult, someone did catch it–after it bounced off a man’s eye. I watched him half-laugh, half-groan from the pain as he held his eyeball in place. Lucky man, I thought. That’s a story for the ages.

Grace would perform the majority of her latest album, Hurricane, throughout the night, leading up to the title track of the album performed wearing a curved backpack atop a dark trench coat. Massive industrial sized fans began to whirl against the singer as the song began. Approaching the full-powered fans slowly, she stuck a hand behind her. With the quick pull of a cord, the backpack exploded into a long, flowing sea of black fabric covering the entire stage. Skillfully, she headed toward the fans while outstretching the parachute behind her–effectively skydiving horizontally right in front of our eyes.

Later on would come my personal favorite from the latest album, “Corporate Cannibal.” Out she came, fitted with a giant black-and-gold oversized dress that stretched across a quarter of the stage studded with dollar signs. On her face, a golden skull mask.

Several times throughout the show, Jones would stare down straight at us–the two children of the concert. Did I offend her with my youthful presence? Did she like us? Was my shirt visible? Did she mind that I suck at recalling lyrics in public spaces? I couldn’t read the gaze at all, but I knew that it rendered a mixture of fear and frantic delight each time our eyes met.

Luckily, we were able to experience some of her career classics along the way as well. “Demolition Man” profited from a cheeky, albeit entertaining twist as “Grace TV” flashed onscreen like a faux-Fox News report, proclaiming “Demolition Man Speaks!” alongside popular news reels, while “My Jamaican Guy” was appropriately crooned in a green, yellow, and black headdress and bead skirt. “Libertango (I’ve Seen That Face Before)” offered up another wardrobe surprise when Grace walked out with a half-body replica of herself. On a stick. As the song began, she looked lovingly into her own eyes, stuck out a heel, and began to waltz with herself. It was silly, mesmerizing, and undoubtedly weird.

As I’d presumed after seeing countless interviews with Grace Jones, she’s an incredibly witty person. Far from the bloated ego other artists may seriously maintain, Jones proved unafraid to walk out in a dress fitted for five, work a fierce pose for a full minute, and give a knowing wink and smile at the ridiculous grandeur of it all. Even the ‘tude, demanding drinks and chastising the crew, were done for the love of over-exaggerated theatrics and not out of a genuine diva complex. She is an artist to be admired and laughed along with at the very same time.

Throughout the night, she delighted the crowd with countless sexual quips (“Don’t you hate it when you can’t find the hole?” she remarked backstage while changing into the next costume. ) I looked at Paolo–her son and occasional band member, looking down at his instrument now patiently awaiting his mother to return. Silently, I ponder the price and amount of therapy sessions necessary to exorcise the scarring thoughts his mother implants into his brain nightly.

It’s no surprise that the most fun performances came at the very end–her classics, “Pull Up To The Bumper” and “Slave To The Rhythm,” performed in what could be considered that night her most conservative garb yet. Shimmying against the groove of “Bumper,” she began a mini sing-along with the crowd, going back and forth on the chorus as the entire ballroom clapped and swayed along with the legend.

Perhaps one of the only things that irked me about the show was the lack of a sold out crowd. “You can’t take a break for 20 years,” one of the uber-fans standing next to me lamented after an hour of waiting while looking back at the only semi-filled balcony seats. Perhaps this was true. Or, perhaps, it was simply the case that has always been with Grace Jones, who remains an enigma to so many: Perhaps people still just don’t ‘get’ her. “One of my greatest fears, one of my nightmares,” she purred backstage as she slipped into something a little more latex-friendly for Hurricane track “Devil In My Life,” “is to be misunderstood.”

The show ran approximately two full hours, complete with seventeen songs, confetti, and a whole lot of innuendo. Best of all, I managed to grab a set list. My very first set list–and for Grace Jones, no less! All it took was a bit of flailing from the banister and desperate pointing at my shirt for the tour manager to point me out and say “Give it to that one with the glasses.” See, making your own concert tee pays off.

After all the concerts I’ve been to (and all the concerts I’ll see), I don’t know that I’ll ever encounter someone as positively entrancing and gifted as Grace Jones. The way she commands a stage (with little gimmick than a silly costume) is the stuff of legend, the definition of epic–truly an icon that will go down as perhaps the most sorely overlooked artist of our day.

I honestly feel blessed to have experienced that concert.

Thanks to Michael for uploading his banging pictures and video from the show. Click here to see the rest of the videos!

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