Each time Grace Jones disappeared backstage to change costumes at the Hollywood Bowl – and for this veteran clothes horse, that meant between virtually every song in Sunday’s concert – she kept her microphone on, addressing the audience even as members of her crew helped her out of one outré get-up and into the next.
“I always put what I feel in a song, even when I didn’t write ’em,” she said during one such interlude, just before she re-emerged for “Private Life,” her hypnotic rendition of the Pretenders tune about emotional blackmail. Then the 67-year-old singer laughed in her throaty, willfully intimidating way and said that she should’ve written all of her songs, given that they sound like they’re “coming out of my pores.”
Who could disagree?
More than her deep voice or her post-disco rhythmic flair, it’s Jones’ personality, with its blend of arrogance and exuberance, that drives her music, which she began making in the late 1970s after earlier success as a model. And it’s that essential Jones-ness that has propelled her well beyond music since then; today, she’s probably better known for her work in movies and fashion than for early-’80s club hits like “Walking in the Rain” and “Pull Up to the Bumper.” (Jones’ most recent album, “Hurricane,” came out in 2008, and the one before that in 1989 -- facts that were no impediment to her filling the Bowl all the way to the cheap seats.)
So it made sense that for Sunday’s gig – part of a brief tour ahead of the release of her wryly titled autobiography, “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” – Jones kept emphasizing the business behind the show, as when she began hastily removing a silky black robe before she’d even made it backstage.
“I got a new song,” she said at one point. “I just didn’t put it out yet.”
This idea that life is the real performance has made Jones an important influence on multiple generations of younger pop stars, from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Nicki Minaj. Yet in her book, she writes dismissively of those singers (and many more), describing them as copycats who’ve only watered down her signature transgressions.
Rihanna, for instance, borrows the Keith Haring body-paint look that Jones wore Sunday night. “But where [Haring] painted directly on my body,” Jones writes, “[Rihanna] wears a painted bodysuit. That’s the difference.”
At the Bowl, you were indeed reminded how much further Jones was willing to go than her successors – but also how much more casually she went about her provocations. This was not a woman who made a big deal about coming onstage topless, as she did to open the concert with Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”; ditto her decision to wear what looked like a nun’s veil during “Walking in the Rain,” or to don a prosthetic penis for “My Jamaican Guy.”
Not that she wasn’t looking to impress. Jones’ singing was strong throughout the show, particularly in a fast, jittery version of Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug” and a rather royal “La Vie en Rose,” which she sang while parading down the Bowl’s semicircular catwalk collecting flowers from fans in the front rows. She sounded great too in “Williams Blood,” a gospel-minded tune from “Hurricane” for which she brought to the stage her brother Noel, a bishop at the City of Refuge church in Gardena.
And you couldn’t call her closer, “Slave to the Rhythm,” anything less than a production number, given that Jones sang the song – all eight or nine minutes of it, including her introduction of each member of her band -- while keeping a hula hoop moving around her waist.
Part of you was hoping the hula hoop would stay aloft, as it did, while the other part was hoping it would fall, to see what Jones would do.
The latter should’ve been easy to imagine. But it wasn’t.