Having kept the Festival crowd waiting for an hour after the usual start time – “I’m sorry I’m late, I couldn’t come on until the sun had gone down. I’m a self proclaimed vampire.” she announced when finally on stage (well, at least the well-known diva did apologise…) – Grace Jones delivered an amazing set of songs and spectacle that had all of the audience on their feet by the end, dancing and singing along.
And that end came at probably the Festival’s most late-night finish ever on the Floating Stage – at 11.15 pm! The fireworks were set off just before 11 pm as a backdrop to a blistering set closer of Pull Up To The Bumper, and continued as Grace readied herself for an encore.
But back to the start. Opening with her cover of Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s song, Nightclubbing, from the 1981 album of the same name, Jones was a sight to behold. Her face initially hidden behind a gold skull mask topped with black feathers, she wore a black body corset with a multi-faceted black cape that billowed around her in the night air. She completed her look with white patterned body paint on her arms, legs and face. When she stripped off later to the corset she commented, “I normally perform naked but tonight I thought I should fit in with the festival black tie dress code!”
Her backing band laid down a strong rhythm from the opening number, and continued throughout the set to offer the perfect foil for Jones’ vocals. She sang a variety of songs, mostly from her 1980s hey-day, including The Pretenders’ Private Life written by Chrissie Hynde, whom Jones name-checked and said, “Don’t we all love Chrissie Hynde?”
Other set highlights were Warm Leatherette, My Jamaican Guy, La Vie En Rose, an a cappella Amazing Grace, and Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug.
What was astonishing was how strong and soulful her voice remains after all these years. Her vocal performances have always been a trademark of her musical career. And for a lady who had her 70th birthday in May this year, there was no sign of weakness and her voice remains a compelling and potent ‘instrument’.
Beginning her career as a model, Grace Jones has also always been known for her strong interest in the visual aspects to her professional life. The many striking and bold images she created are often credited with influencing many of the pop stars who followed her. This ‘passion for the visual’ showed no signs of abating on stage last night as Jones underwent costume changes between almost every song, with a variety of wigs and headgear, high heel shoes, skirts, and even a suit and porkpie hat for My Jamaican Guy!
And whilst she disappeared off-stage to undergo these transformations, she always kept talking to the audience on all manner of subjects. From how she’s always loved living by rivers – so Henley got big love there – and how warm the UK weather was, reflections on Jamaica (where she was born), and how she thought the Festival would be full of boring folks but we, the audience, had surprised her, and she was having a great time.
The show’s highlight was during Pull Up To The Bumper when, in probably a first for the Festival in all its years, Jones climbed off the front of the stage and sat on a man’s shoulders (we assume it was a roadie and not some random chap from the audience): who then proceeded to carry Jones on a circuit of the lawn in front of the stage, even going through the crowd along the aisle at the bottom of the grandstand. The look of sheer joy on her face as she was carried around was brilliant to see. The audience meanwhile, now all on their feet and dancing, took photos of her and tried for high-fives as she did her ‘walkabout’. Having been returned to the stage, she and her band closed off the set as the fireworks burst loudly in the night sky.
Post-fireworks and another costume change, the show ended with an encore of probably Jones’ best known song, 1985’s Slave To The Rhythm, which was notable as the singer did her trademark feat of spinning a hula hoop around her waist for the entire song. And which she managed to keep going even as she introduced the members of her band during the song!
It was a remarkable and hugely enjoyable show. And probably one the best performances ever seen at the Henley Festival.
Earlier in the evening, in the Bedouin Tent, local girl Megan Henwood who grew up in Henley performed for the first time at the festival with a great acoustic set of her original songs . She first performed at the Henley Youth Festival aged just five. She said, “I’ve dreamed of playing Henley Festival since I was a little bubba and tonight it’s becoming a reality!”