Review: Grace Knight at The Ellington Jazz Club
Grace Knight at The Ellington Jazz Club
Friday, November 3, 2023
After letting the expectation build, Grace Knight joined her band on the Ellington stage.
“There’s gonna be a bit of everything tonight," she said, as the applause eased, “even some old nursery rhymes."
A gentle laugh lapped the room but when she launched into Bring Him Back Home to Me it was on for young and old.
Knight was right, there was a bit of everything. From Eurogliders’ hits to Irish folk, sultry blues to the classic American song book, straight jazz to folk rock. All of it was pitch perfect, broken by earthy and often hilarious stories of a life well (mis)spent in the halls of rock’n’roll and jazz.
There are some iconic voices that echo through your heart: John Lennon now and then, Marianne Faithful almost always. For many Australians, Grace Knight has one too. She growled, scowled and soared her way through many great songs including Keep Cool Fool, Baby Please Come Home, Wait for the Night and Blessed are the Days. If she wasn’t so warm and friendly, with her character-worn face and wild, taupe hair, you’d swear she was the Wikid Witch of the West.
Her range was stunning. There were soft moments—the haunting ballad Fall for You, which began with a spare violin-guitar duet. Raucous ones—the caustic blues of Wrap Me Up. And some darkly sweet ones—the classic gospel/soul of Motherless Child. In between she gave a fair airing to her Irish roots, her ‘nursery rhymes’ (her mother was Irish)—the ballads Billy and One I Love.
Knight’s band was hot. Apart from the ebullient Danny Susnjar on drums, they all are Melbourne-based. The statuesque Esther Henderson (violin and contralto backing vox) stood next to the man in a striped Al Capp cap, Philip Rex (double bass and baritone backing vox), while on the far side of the stage, ‘the monkey in the corner,’ as Knight dubbed him, erstwhile Perth person, Sam Lemann straddled the guitar. A cheeky lot, they had a heap of fun, laughing, grinning and joining in on Knight’s jokes.
The core of the band are Henderson and Lemann. Their constant duelling was something to behold. Waggling his head, Lemann, without a single glance at his fluid fingers, would flick Henderson’s violin lines straight back at her. With a warm grin and sparkle in her eye, she’d return in kind his next guitar lick. Toward the end of the second set, on Lucky Me, they fell into some exquisite parallel pizzicato strings, Lemann deadening his to the timbre of the violin. Magic.
It was also a delight when, on the Eurogliders hit, Can’t Wait To See You, Henderson and Rex came in beneath Knight’s searing vocals with bittersweet harmonies. They repeated this many times over the course of the night but equally often Henderson would subtly double track Knight, a trick The Beatles perfected. It was only when you saw her leaning into the mic that you realised she was singing as well.
With his usual dexterity, Susnjar delivered a vibrant mix of percussion—everything from bare hands on snare, to tom on cymbals.
Rex was no slouch either. His intro and underpinning of Motherless Child, which closed the first set, was brilliant. Scampering up the smooth neck of his bass, his fingers created intricate geometric patterns of slides and jumps.
Back in 1990, Knight swapped pop for jazz. A smart career move, it’s allowed her to age gracefully on stage long after most pop stars, notably her erstwhile Eurogliders bandmates, have moved on to their second careers. A few adolescent septuagenarians can get away with it (just) but too many rock and rollers resign themselves to an inglorious old age. But not the jazz divas—they can keep going, dignity intact, for as long as they like.
In Knight’s case, this also means she has a solid back catalogue across a range of styles to draw on. This all makes for an excellent show.
Not surprisingly, the audience could readily sing along. Knight led them in on Will You Wait for Me and One I Love but on the last song of the show, Heaven (Must Be There), the hit that broke Eurogliders into America, they needed no prompting. Half the room knew the lyrics by heart and sang along in spontaneous excitement. Most memorably, a mother and her adult daughter swayed in time, eyes closed, harmonising together. Across the generations, Grace Knight has one of those voices.
And then, just as it begun, it was all over. With the band still playing, to resounding applause, Knight left the stage, a diva through and through.
Photos by Alan Holbrook