Grace Jones, Meltdown22, Royal Festival Hall, London, live concert,
Meltdown 22: Grace Jones as an onstage tower of style. (Photo by Burak Cingi, NME)

Grace Jones’s anticipated appearance was towering above the audience on a crane in a glittery bowler hat and a ludicrously voluminous motif dress fluttering 20ft off the ground. A frisson of excitement surged through the crowd for an opening befitting their expectation. A black high priestess preparing for the ritual of worship that is due, she tore into the rapid fire This Is from her last album Hurricane. The audience were on their feet immediately and remained there for the duration.

Her reworking of other artists’ songs and making them her own are exemplified on the second number, The Pretenders’ Private Life, now a set standard where Grace eviscerates her complaining married lover’s attitude, almost spitting out the acerbic lyrics:

You asked for my advice, I said use the door
But you’re still clinging to somebody you deplore
And now you want to use me for emotional blackmail
I feel pity when you lie, contempt when you cry…
You private life drama baby, leave me out.

Grace Jones, Meltdown22, Royal Festival Hall, London, live concert,This was a perfect vehicle for her dominant presence and aura, a legacy exploited after boxing Russell Harty, the talk-show host, on air to her role as Bond villain May Day in mid-career. On the Sting cover Demolition Man she beats those cymbals like a dominatrix would her clients, no mercy, pushing them over for emphasis. Looking like a Black Panther warrior in a strapless one-piece embellished with the iconic NY artist Keith Haring’s body art (first seen in the movie Vamp), she declared of her friend and former collaborator, “Yes I’m still painting myself in your art 30 years later”.

My Jamaican Guy had her stalking across the stage in a resplendent headdress of the tricolour national flag. The new album has promised to be an African Hybrid with the slow burner Wartime in Summer. This different direction could probably be the reason for the African heavyweight artists invited by Grace as curator to join this year’s Meltdown, including Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Oumou Sangare. Possible collaborations?

Grace Jones, Meltdown22, Royal Festival Hall, London, live concert,
Grace as Meltdown curator: Fuelled by wine beneath a glitterball hat straight from Studio 54. (Photo Andrew James)
Grace Jones, Meltdown22, Royal Festival Hall, London, live concert,
Grace’s coronation: Carried aloft through the audience for Pull Up To The Bumper. (Photo Andrew James)

I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) is always a highlight drawing on French chanson, its haunting melody bursting with desire, the live accordion embellishing its dreamy ethereal quality. This also helped Grace cross over to an older more conservative audience especially in Europe that had her guesting on many family TV shows in the Eighties.

We dip into her strict religious upbringing featured in the documentary Bloodlight and Bami, in the autobiographical William’s Blood and its influence in the impromptu Amazing Grace.

Roxy Music’s Love Is the Drug becomes an electronic staccato stomp with the brilliant lighting colours bouncing off her glitterball hat like the dance-floor of Studio 54, her Seventies haunt.

The funked up Pull Up To The Bumper, one of her signature hit songs, amps up the audience and becomes a coronation as she is lifted aloft into a sea of adoring and cheering subjects halfway into the auditorium. She regales the crowd with a joyous Happy Gay Pride twice, knowing a sizeable proportion of her audience and fanbase. Fifty-something silver-fox bears sat on either side of us in the venue, many of whom like myself have followed her career since the late 70s and have lost friends during the epidemic, along no doubt with fashion and artist friends of Grace, notably Keith Haring, whom she paid tribute tonight. That makes her an even more significant emblematic queen of our era.

Slave To The Rhythm is a masterpiece. Produced by Trevor Horn, it is elevated now by Grace singing and maintaining a hula hoop with deft precision while wearing an exaggerated spiky headpiece and heels. All the time sauntering across the stage, not missing a beat.

Hurricane is literally a tour de force as she battles against an industrial wind machine in more dramatic headwear (her career favoured milliner Philip Treacy). A horned helmet and oversized cloak trailed furiously behind her as she barked out the defiant lyrics. The cinematic effect was an impressive highlight: think Tim Curry’s entrance in Ridley Scott’s Legend and Angelina Jolie in Maleficent and you will get the idea (though I’m sure this headpiece precedes Jolie’s iconic headpiece). Dark and lovely.

The show had overrun but Grace didn’t budge. We only got a brief a cappella version of La Vie en Rose long associated with Grace. I shouted out when I thought it would be the encore with time running out, a fan’s choice for the week’s finale.

Song had followed song, each with an offstage costume change (there was a lot of drapery going on) interspersed with bawdy humour about wine, her galloping heart rate and exchanges with her backstage team laced with innuendo. We have come to expect this delightful commentary at her shows illustrating the physical demands a high art show has on the 74-year-young star’s body and soul, a show that does not rely on digital wizardry and an army of dancers. This was a triumphant return to the London stage, her curated Meltdown delayed two years by the pandemic although to fans’ relief not cancelled.

There is no comparable performer out there who mixes art, cabaret, fashion and theatre (Gaga and Madonna are her pupils if you feel the need to mention their names, however let’s review in 15 or 20 years). To deliver this black excellence at this stage of her career with such sheer exuberance is awe-inspiring and gag-worthy. Long reign our alternative Queen in this fiftieth year of UK Pride.

Grace Jones, Meltdown22, Royal Festival Hall, Tilda Swinton
Selfie backstage at Grace Jones’s Meltdown 2022: Andy Polaris with fashion designer Samson Soboye and actress Tilda Swinton serving glamour