Saturday, April 16, 2011

Grace Jones live in Melbourne, 2011 (review)

Venue: The Palais
Date: 14/04/2011

The many phases/faces of Jamaican mega-star Grace Jones unfold at the Palais tonight, as the queen of subversion unleashes her craft on Melbourne as part of her Hurricane world tour. Australian fans have waited a long time for Jones, so she isn’t about to sleep walk through a show she’s been touring for four years now, in fact Grace demands her audience’s attention from start to finish in an exhaustive two hour showcase of costumes most drag queens would consider ‘over-the-top’, comical rants and that deep arresting voice.

Once a very late Jones decides she is ready to see us, the Palais curtain raises to reveal a body sheathed entirely in a silver satin sheet, looking like some forgotten mannequin left behind in Studio 54’s attic. From beneath the shroud only a rumbling voice and minimal movements indicate human involvement, but the exaggerated height and shape suggest something even more sinister lurks beneath. Here (almost) before us, larger than life, is the original pop provocateur and shock-style icon poised to prove she’s still very much boss of her quarter. Suddenly the shroud slips away, revealing Jones - dressed as a zebra - and the whole crazy ride kicks off as she prances animatedly about the stage under an orange spotlight.

Each song in the set, which heavily covers 2008 album Hurricane and most of her ‘80s hits, is accompanied by different, equally extraordinary Grace-look; horror/demon drag (Devil In My Life), walking mirrorball (Pull Up To The Bumper), tropical Rasta-chick (My Jamaican Guy) etc… but proving you just can’t beat a little black dress; Grace wows us the most in a subtle cocktail gown, performing a flawless tango partnered by a pole-mounted legless dummy of herself during I’ve Seen That Face Before. These kinds of choreographed pop-circus’s are usually so strategised they fast become bland-fests, but Grace from inside her hyper-surreal concert display, serves so much personality she easily remains the sole focus throughout... If not her appearance, then at least because things generally look to be teetering on the brink of collapse throughout.

In what could have been a momentum killer, Jones’ costume changes demand she spend a considerable amount of time off stage. To ensure focus does in fact remains on her, mic in hand Grace’s offbeat commentary keeps the crowd roaring as her minions prep her for yet another grand entrance. “I nearly didn’t make it here tonight.” She quips from back-stage, “I passed out at the airport with a bottle. They had to call a doctor.” She continues with a half-arsed attack on the twitter-verse, “Does anybody out there twit? Should I backstage twit you? Okay… Twit, twit, twit.” But the hilarity peaks as she shamelessly professes, “My vanity’s gonna send me straight to hell. I just hope hell has straws so I don’t mess up my lipstick when I have a drink.”

Her adoring fans are collectively gasping in awe one moment and laughing out loud the next, but for me its the chaos element which provides the most delicious aspect to Grace’s show. The failed attempt to get fans up on stage during Love Is The Drug, the confetti cannons misfiring, Jones forgetting her band member’s names all helped to make us feel connected to the person behind the performer and not just spectators of some faded star being wheeled around in pre-arranged motion. If there’s one thing Jones has repeatedly asserted since the late ‘70s when she shifted from modelling into music – don’t expect a compliant clothes horse offering nowt but a blue steel gaze. The fact is, the 62 year-old’s movements on stage were so incredibly lithe - even wearing a dress the size of a small house and ten-inch heels – she becomes almost dizzying to watch.

By the close of the main show, the audience are on their feet and it feels as though we at last have arrived on Grace’s plain. Hurricane is performed in a billowing cape, engulfing the entire stage with the assistance of wind machines, while huge projected black clouds roll across the backdrop. Grace’s voice soars above the faux storm and the alien vision on stage melts away all sense of reality. Then before a hysterical crowd, Grace returns for one encore and drives home her legend status with a rousing Slave To The Rhythm. Grace is at last fully unveiled as she extends her signature song’s refrain to lead a sing-a-long, and her simple enjoyment of this moment is plain for all to see.

Whether it’s a sign that Grace has relaxed too much or some well planned whimsy, the whole bonkers extravaganza ends with the weak, tinny sound of Grace sloppily crashing two cymbals together. “This is for you,” she enthuses the audience, before holding the cymbals between her knees and awkwardly making them turn, kind of like she was miming riding a bike, but not really…? In its lame inadequacy, this act was the perfect end to a seriously impressive show. By that point Grace had overstimulated and confounded the audience so much, it was as if she had read our need for some relieving daftness to go home on. Many great and not-so-great artists have tried, and continue to do so, but after spending a night on planet Grace, I don’t see how anyone could hope to keep up with this Jones.



This is
Williams' Blood
Private Life
Devil In My Life
Love You To Life
Demolition Man
Sunrise Sunset
La Vie En Rose
My Jamaican Guy
Corporate Cannibal
Well Well Well
Love Is The Drug
Libertango (I’ve Seen That Face Before)
Pull Up To The Bumper
Slave To The Rhythm

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Irma Thomas interview: 2011


As far as royal titles go, Soul Queen Of New Orleans is an impressive honour whichever way you look at it. In what will be a first for Australian audiences, the owner of that title, Louisiana-born Irma Thomas, will finally bring to this year’s Bluesfest what she’s been celebrated for in the US for over 50 years now. 

“People are gonna get Irma honey, that’s what’s bringing me over there to Australia.” The soul diva snaps, “They know me as Irma the soul queen of New Orleans and that’s what just what they are gonna get.” Her star might not be the biggest in the soul galaxy, but Irma Thomas can sure talk up a tour. She first hit the stages of New Orleans in 1960, and was for a time the hottest ticket in town. Her career however had several stops and starts and Thomas found herself being re-launched to new audiences as each decade passed. Australian fans have waited a long time for her to launch on them, but Irma’s promising a full retrospective to make up for lost time.

“I try to do a mix of my ‘60s hits and my current stuff too, and if there’s time I let fans make requests - and if I remember it I’ll sing it - but I don’t always remember some of the older songs.” Irma adds surprisingly, “I will have my iPad though with my lyrics all on it, and if I can work out how to use it then everything’s gonna be just fine.” She laughs. “Hell I’m 70 years old now, I can’t remember everything I’ve sung, but hopefully fans will get to hear their favourite Irma song.” Thomas’s joy at discussing her childhood memory of music’s impact on her is striking. In her voice is the sound of a woman who never forgot the first girlhood rush of hearing soul music for the very first time.

“Oh it (soul music) was all over where I lived - in my house, in the street, just all around me. When I was growing up most neighbourhoods had clubs with live music in them, but as a kid you couldn’t go in those places so we would stand outside and listen to all the performers or else they’d turn up the jukebox for us and we would dance right there in the street.” She laughs. The impression this early musical exposure had on Irma was a little different to her many brothers and sisters. At the age of 13 she was singing in a Baptist church choir and already laying the groundwork for what would be a life-long commitment to soul. But despite early set-backs – she had two failed marriages in her teens and had started a family by the age of 19 - Irma never took eyes off the prize.

“Life throws you all kinds of situations, but everyday is a new chance.” She says brimming with wisdom, “And that’s the way I’ve always looked at life. Nobody else in my family was an entertainer, I was it, so I got to fulfill my dream and that has kept me going through everything life has thrown my way.” Irma’s title of Soul Queen is something she’s extremely proud of. Her commercial success never reached the level of say, Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, but her accolade was based on her ability as a vocalist above all. “I am proud of that because a lot people mistakenly call soul a genre and it’s not a genre, it’s a feeling. You can be a pop, jazz or rhythm and blues singer and still have soul for what you’re doing. So to be thought of as queen of New Orleans soul is a huge compliment to me. It means they know that I get it.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina toppled the city of soul, including Ms Thomas’s own home and the club she performed at. Irma however wasn’t home at the time and it would be two years before she could move back to her beloved city. Six years on and Irma believes New Orleans’ music is strong as it ever was. “There are parts missing from my town, and some folks who used to live here now have to come visit when they want to play a show, but I think New Orleans still has its soul.” She adds defiantly, “Katrina couldn’t take that away from us.” Irma, in a strange twist, was recording an album out of town during the hurricane titled After The Rain. It was an almost custom designed ray of hope for the local residents who rallied around the record as they rebuilt their town and gave Irma cause to question coincidence. “That entire album, apart from one song was completed before the hurricane, and that last song was called Shelter From The Rain – a Stevie Wonder song that I covered. I don’t know if I believe in coincidence or any of that, but every one of those musicians who played on that record were in some way personally affected by the storm when it hit.” In closing I wonder what, if the 70 year-old soul legend had taken a different path in life, would she had liked to do differently.

“Well I never thought I would end up doing anything other than singing.” She offers after some thought, “I mean at one point, I would maybe have liked to become a teacher, but now I realise still singing at my age, I am kind of a teacher anyway. Younger performers tend to watch what you do when you have been around a long while and take pointers from you.” Irma laughs, “But I have been told many times I’ve been an inspiration by other singers. In fact when I met Randy Newman he told me he had always written his songs with me in mind. So yeah, I got to fulfill both my dreams in a way – singer and teacher, honey.”


Monday, April 11, 2011

Imogen Heap interview: 2011


“I haven’t got a lot of time because I still have to write the last verse of my new song before I get to bed. Is fifteen minutes alright with you?” Imogen Heap is at home in London cramming in dinner between phone interviews while she pieces together the beginning stages of an album not due for release until December 2013. Despite this fact, her sense of urgency is high. After all, she has committed to releasing one entirely new song every three months until the project - known as Heapsongs - is completed with a level of input from her fans never before attempted by a singer/songwriter. 

Utilising the social network phenomenon, Imogen Heap has thrown a huge bone to fans of her jaunty pop songs – to suggest song topics, compose music and generally help create what will ultimately be her fourth album piece by piece. “The idea scares me a little. I know I’m really going to have to trust my instincts a lot with these songs. I’m not going to be able to rush back into the studio at the last minute and change anything if I start having doubts it.” She begins. What’s remarkable about Imogen and her decision to leave so much in the hands of her adoring fans is that previously her methods of creating have been almost entirely solo affairs. The Romford-based artist is a producer, multi-instrumentalist (13 to be exact) and composer in serious demand. I wonder then what has pushed the driver to so readily take a back seat?

“Well the original idea was to find a way to develop as a songwriter without the whole process taking over my life.” She explains, “When you make an album usually, you take about two years and think about little else but the album. The exciting thing then becomes those little side projects that come along because you can carry on working but have a bit of distance from your own headspace. Heapsongs is a way of making it all about the unexpected little surprises that keep you hungry and juiced up creatively.” She adds, “I got tired pouring everything into making albums and putting everything else in my life on hold. If I had a group of songwriters, a band and someone looking after my studio I probably wouldn’t have arrived at this decision, but because it’s just me I had to re-think how I was going to make music and keep myself connected to the rest of the world.” Imogen has been making her particular brand of garage-pop since her 1998 debut, I, Megaphone. However the album that should have launched her became something of a cross-to-bear. Heap found herself having to re-promote the record two years after its initial release following dismissal by her label ahead of its take-over. Considering the time spent on promoting her debut and writing its follow-up, 2005’s Speak For Yourself, it’s easy to see why a re-think was in order. She discusses.

“Making albums in a traditional way is very an insular process. I mean you do feel fantastic when it’s finished but I wanted to think more about my future this time. If I was making an album the regular way I would have to put all touring on hold for two years, but working this way means I can come to Australia and do some shows and continue working on songs.” The internet has of course helped turn Imogen’s notion into a reality. She explains. “On twitter or on my blog, I post an idea - it may be just a thought I have at 3 in the morning – and immediately people add to it and it can become an idea for a song or a video.” She continues, “I have a word-cloud on my blog for example that people can add things to and I can see what fans would like to hear me sing about. Most recently the words “Japan”, “seismic” and “tsunami” have been coming up a lot.” Imogen decides, “Songs should capture a moment in time, and so I thought, well this is on everybody’s minds right now, and I do want these songs to mean something to people – I don’t want to just write about nothing. The problem for me was how I could possibly connect with something so large-scale to write a song about it.” She adds, “Then the answer came to me after reading in the paper about a journalist who had witnessed from a helicopter one man on a bike literally peddling for his life with the wave closing on him. I just burst into tears when I read that and I thought what would’ve been going through his mind at that moment?” Ensuring the success of Heapsongs, Imogen’s fans have feverishly pounced on the chance to be a part of the project. She has been sent everything from complete ukulele solos to sound clips of eggs being cracked into a bowl and every day more and more pieces are added to her skeletal song structures. Sorting out what is and isn’t song-worthy however isn’t always an easy task. She considers.

“I have had a lot of quite rough, organic sound seeds sent in that don’t obviously fit into a song.” She says diplomatically, “I’ve been sent things like water being thrown into a hot pan or a squeaky door on a dishwasher from fans who’ve then just gone ‘Hey I’m the guy who sent you the sound clip of water in a pan – can I come to your house for a party?'” Imogen laughs. “But I think all the fans involved in making Heapsongs so far kind of feel like they’re part of a big extended family which is really nice.” The uncertainty of this project’s outcome feels hard to ignore as I speak with Imogen. The album will take two years to complete with one new song released every three months. If she feels any sense of doubt, though it isn’t one she wishes to share. “No well, albums often capture a brief period of time that’s relevant to the artist, but in doing this kind of release, I will be able to look back at the end of the project and have a catalogue of songs relevant to a much greater time frame and will have had a lot more experiences along the way than I would being sat alone in a studio. So my decision to make an album in this way is more a lifestyle choice really.”


Imogen Heap Lifeline video