Some are one-hit wonders. Some endure. Some struggle to reinvent themselves. Some master the art. Too few, I expect. But Grace Knight is one of 'em. Depending when you were born, you might even remember her folk ways, in the mother country. That was (sorry, Grace) the mid-to-late 70s, and even I was still at school (just). She was barely a teenager, so she's not quite as ancient as you might otherwise deduce. In an Idol echo, she was scouted and offered a gig in Dubai, which saw her sharing the stage with Martha Reeves & The Vandelas.
Now that's what you call a lucky break. But you have to have the goods to get there.
An enterprising young Knight sang her way back to Australia, via the Women's Weekly World Discovery Tour, a rite of grey passage, which not all the passengers managed to complete. That landed her in Perth and she worked with a few bands, before she hooked-up with Bernie Lynch to form Eurogliders. Bells ringing now, Quasimodo? Numerous hit singles and albums culminated in an MTV NYE spot, seen by 65 million.
In the mid-80s (at least according to my dimming recollections), Grace was reincarnated as an actor, in ABC-TV's Come In Spinner. By accident, or design, she was magically transformed into a torch singer. Better yet, the soundtrack, with Vince Jones, easily eclipsed the series. Broadening her horizons, by segueing into jazz and blues, she released a number of albums, including Stormy Weather, the aptly-titled Gracious and Live (from the Basement).
Notwithstanding a rekindled 'Euroglide' a few years back (an album and Countdown tour), GK has continued tapping the rich vein of jazz; recently with other popstar-turned-blueswomen, such as the angel-voiced Ms Anu.
Like a wine that becomes more dimensional, complex, delicious, refined and sophisticated with each passing year, Knight probably shines more brightly than ever.
Musically, she is, indeed, the Sophisticated Lady she's billed as. But that aside, she's earthy; more Nina, than Ella. And she has a knack for connecting with her audience, evidenced, last night, at the Civic Hotel, in her anecdotes, ribaldry and self-deprecating humour ('I've the bum of Einstein and the brain of a horse'). She joked about her aspiration to be on So You Think You Can Dance, resplendent in a gown, split to the hip: 'if only my legs were 8 inches longer, my boobs 8 inches bigger and I had a waist!' This seems to be the authentic Grace, and she's generous to give it. She even used it to spruik her new album, Willow, in a much more entertaining way than most hungry artists: 'my mechanic's here tonight, and he's pronounced my Daewoo dead; since I see myself as an Audi chick, maybe you'd like to buy a copy of my album'. She tells of being on her 4th hubby: 'he doesn't quite know it yet, but he will'; and of marriage, 'I'm getting better at it, even though my mum says I don't have much to offer; she's such a bitch!'
I relate these intimacies, somewhat guiltily, with a sense of betrayal, only because I believe she brings the full, charismatic gale-force of her personality to bear in the expressiveness and heart she brings to her songs.
Harking back to tracks from her second solo outing, we heard, early on, for example, Gene de Paul's Teach Me Tonight, with lyrics by the immortal Sammy Cahn. Making it's debut in the early 50s, it's been done by everyone from the pneumatic Ann-Margret, to Cranky Franky himself (for whom Cahn added a verse), but Grace breathes new life into it, especially having taken it out of the quintessentially 80s keyboard context in which she originally recorded it. There's much more of the sassy diva in it now; the older, wiser woman, as against the more innocent, naive reading of a couple of decades ago. In this, there's no substitute for a life substantially lived; she brings it to the vocal, with knowing and nuance. She started with the ABC of it, and now knows it right down to the XYZ of it. Luscious!
From the very same album, we also heard Don't Set Me Free, a bluesy, upbeat Ray Charles' classic, written by Teddy Powell & Bobby Sharp. Personality and otherwise, Grace would've been a shoe-in for a spirited, soulful duet with my man Ray; pity he didn't live long enough for it to see light of day. Ms Knight brings all the longing, lust and contained desperation the song demands.
Also from Gracious (an album called Rapacious would be even more fitting, methinks), she encored with a tickety-boo, quick-tempo Moondance; definitely a highlight of the night, with the superlative Ray Alldridge Trio at full tilt.
There were moments when, eyes closed, I could've quite easily transported my mind's eye to a seedy basement, with Billie teasing out her sexually-charged, tormented phrases: Grace can sound timeless and a lot, well, blacker, in every sense, than her forthright, extroverted good humour and Anglo origins would indicate. In other words, beneath the veneer of brightness lurks a sensitive soul; it's the only explanation for the communication of such feeling, of a kind which speaks directly to one's own soul (if it's not too remote a concept, in this supercyber age).
It's this quality that brings the requisite sultriness and heat to what could so easily be a cheap, easy option, in Fever, from her first, sleek album, Stormy Weather.
From same, Lance & Wallace's Momma He Treats Your Daughter Mean and Willy Nelson's accidental jazz lapse, the incomparable Crazy, far from losing the potency of the earlier recordings, have, like that wine, matured, showing signs of oaky, smoky, aromatic development.
From her latest opus, Willow, a different spin on the Ruiz & Gimbel-penned, mamboesque Sway (now inseparable from the round, rich tones of Buble, if originally made famous, outside Latin America, by Deano) was warm and welcome; Soft Winds swung, in humble homage to Dinah Washington's seminal rendition.
Grace's vocals are enigmatically hers, paradoxically capable of breathy subtlety, belting blues, velvet smoothness, & bourbon 'n' cigarettes huskiness. She deploys these qualities with sympathy for the composition she's grappling with at the time; its intention & sentiments. It's surely, and surefootedly, the hallmark of a seasoned songstress. One of her faves, and the inspiration for her new record's title, Willow Weep For Me, Ann Ronell's beautiful ballad, from 1932 (speaking of Billie, who arguably made it everything it now is).
With the ever-surprising and always fluid Alldridge as MD and at the keys, innovative, impeccably-credentialled bassist Gary Holgate and Andrew Dickerson (whose brushwork, especially, knows no peer) on drums at her beck-and-call, Knight couldn't possibly be in finer company, or more finely accompanied.
Temporally, Grace is quite a distance from the synthpop of Heaven (Must Be There), but not so very far, when it comes to superb evocations of insurpassable jazz & blues.
While there was a song or two that, just perhaps, lacked a little lustre, or sparkle, the only real reservation was as regards sound reproduction. The band, I gather, played acoustically, which was more than fine, while Grace had a cordless mike, which was subject to a muddy mix indeed; not what's needed when the vocalist is the star!
But conscientious and celebrated chef, Peter Conistis' Level One Dining Room is an elegantly simple & suitable space in which to cultivate cabaret, especially of this calibre. And the staff are warm, welcoming, helpful, attentive, yet unobtrusive. It all adds up to a very enjoyable, relaxed evening of gentle reverie.
Venue: Civic Cabaret
Dates: November 4 - 5, 11 - 12