Friday night saw the return of disco king Nile Rodgers to London for a sell-out performance at The O2 as part of ‘Bluesfest’. We were there to dance, dance, dance.
The last 7 years have been both rewarding and traumatic for Nile Rodgers. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 2010, Rodgers’s prognosis wasn’t good: his doctors even told him to get his affairs in order whilst he was touring. Fast-forward seven years and Rodgers is thankfully cancer free. Professionally, Rodgers is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. His appearance on Daft Punk’s mega-hit ‘Get Lucky’ helped him earn a younger legion of fans who were introduced to his previous successes with the likes of Chic, Sister Sledge and Diana Ross.
As a result, Rodgers is once again one of the most in-demand producers and writers in the business, as well being one of the best live performers around. His performance at Glastonbury in 2013 was heralded as one of the best that year, and his set in the ‘Legends Slot’ on the Pyramid Stage this year won him even more pundits and praise.
Formed in 1976 by Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, Chic would be the pioneers of a more sophisticated disco sound. They were, as their name suggests, chic. They complimented their sophisticated sound with a sophisticated look giving them an unparalleled uniqueness in the seventies disco scene. Their first release ‘Dance, Dance, Dance‘ was a hit almost instantly, and the Rodgers/Edwards axis went onto produce hits for themselves, as well as Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Norma Jean Wright and many more.
Since they formed, Chic has gone through several incarnations, with many impressive musicians and singers being part of the Chic legacy over the past 40 years, including drummers Tony Thompson, keyboardist Raymond Jones and singers Fonzi Thornton and Luther Vandross.
Fast forward four decades and Nile Rodgers is still at the helm of the Chic Organization. The losses of Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards are still missed from the band – their respective drumming and bass playing is nearly unrivalled – Rodgers has recruited a fine set of musicians to carry on the Chic legacy.
Gracing the stage in a gold patterned jacket, Rodgers and his famed guitar dubbed “The Hitmaker” (named after how many hit songs Rodgers has played on with it) were front and centre, backed by Chic all decked out in bright white suits and shirts. From the opening bars of ‘Everybody Dance’ the entirety of The O2 stood up in unison, even those of us high up on Level 4, and proceeded to stand for the next 90 minutes of disco perfection. ‘Everybody Dance’ was the perfect opener, setting the pace for the rest of the set. Rodgers’s sounded as inspiring as ever on guitar, whilst drummer Ralph Rolle and bassist Jerry Barnes laid down an infectious groove and the zippy horn arrangements of Bill Holloman and Curt Ramm were a delight.
From there onwards it was 90 minutes of hits and more hits: ‘Dance Dance Dance’ and ‘I Want Your Love’ featured in quick succession, the later featuring an impressively powerful vocal from co-lead singer Kimberly Davis. Folami, Chic’s other female vocalist, was given two of Diana Ross’s biggest hits to sing, delivering excellent versions of ‘I’m Coming Out’ and ‘Upside Down’. Without letting the band or the audience rest (they were still on their feet, despite paying upwards of eighty quid each for a seat), Rodgers launched into ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ and ‘We Are Family’, turning The O2 into one huge karaoke bar.
More hits followed: Sister Sledge’s ‘Thinking of You‘, perhaps their finest song, was excellent, as was the ‘Chic Cheer’/‘My Forbidden Lover’ medley (the latter featuring more phenomenal horn playing by Holloman and Ramm). The band then launched into Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ with Folami again providing lead vocals, putting her own unique spin on yet another Nile Rodgers classic. Then, without wasting a beat, Rodgers introduced ‘Notorious’, claiming that Duran Duran were his “other band”, before proceeding to perform a funkier version of the 1986 hit.
A welcome addition into the set list was Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, the song responsible for much of Nile Rodgers’s resurgence as a force in music. Once again, Kimberly Davis showed just how great a singer she is. The group performed a soulful, slowed down version of the song’s first verse before launching into the high tempo disco of the original.
The band then took short break as Rodgers spoke to the crowd, reminding them (as if they needed reminding) of the great songs he’s been involved with and the greats he’s worked with. It’s clear Rodgers is a very proud man, and rightly so: very few people can say they’ve been as successful as him in music. He clearly loves performing these songs, and it’s a delight to see a musician of his stature enjoying himself on stage. As far as boasting goes, Nile Rodgers has more to boast with then anyone else. Who else has produced hits Diana Ross, David Bowie and Madonna?
Rodgers then temporarily passed hosting duties on to Ralph Rolle, who has been with the group for about five years. He would also make quite a good hype man if he ever loses his gig as a drummer. Whipping the crowd into a disco frenzy, he then launched into a stunning rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, the original of which was co-produced by Rodgers. Not only is Rolle an impressive drummer, he can sing, possessing a raspy baritone that worked well on this more soulful reading of ‘Let’s Dance’ compared to the original.
As the set drew to a close, it was time for Rodgers to wheel out the big guns: ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’. The band became even funkier, performing knock-out version’s of Chic’s two biggest hits. ‘Good Times’ is, as Rodgers told us, his favourite Chic song and understandably so. It’s one of the most sampled songs in history (check out ‘Rappers Delight’ or Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’), and the original baseline by Bernard Edwards is irresistible. Jerry Barnes has the task of playing Edwards’s bass licks now, and he did an incredible job all night, anchoring the Chic groove. Barnes is one talented bassist – his licks were delicious, and his jams with Rodgers were delightfully funky, none more so than on ‘Le Freak’. His bass solo on ‘Good Times’ again impressed, and led into a quick rendition of ‘Rappers Delight’. The O2 showed it’s appreciating, chanting “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” when Rodgers introduced him at the end.
And with that, Nile Rodgers and Chic had finished their set. Ninety minutes of infectious disco grooves had flown by, and I hadn’t sat down once. Chic are undoubtedly one of the best live bands touring at the moment – Nile Rodgers has brought together some seriously talented musicians who clearly love working for him, and are enjoying being part of his current musical journey. His status as a musical legend is confirmed – and he shows no sign of giving up just yet.
All in all, Chic put on masterclass in live performance on Friday night, making nearly 20,000 people stand and dance for ninety minutes. Nile Rodgers is undoubtedly the king of disco, and long may he reign.
Support: Chaka Khan
Despite being called ‘Bluesfest’, this year’s line-up has hardly any trace of blues in it. Funk and soul icon Chaka Khan opened Friday night’s music, opening for Chic and Nile Rodgers. But, despite the hype, the woman often referred to as the Queen of Funk, was really quite poor.
There’s no doubt that on her day, Khan can out sing anyone – maybe even Aretha. But on Friday she just sounded pitiful. Whether it was her or whoever was responsible for mixing her, it wasn’t pleasant to listen to in the slightest. See seemed to screech throughout, made worse by poor mixing, leading to an incredibly distorted sound.
It wasn’t just Khan’s voice though, her band sounded muddled throughout and was far too loud. Whoever was mixing then thought it was wise to turn Khan’s mic up to hear her over the din from the band, meaning that her screeches were even louder, increasing the risk of tinnitus to anyone sat underneath a speaker column. Versions of ‘Whatcha Gonna Do For Me’, ‘Sweet Thing’ and ‘Papillion’ were awful, and although the sound gradually improved (or my hearing became worse), versions of her biggest hits ‘I Feel For You’, ‘I’m Every Woman’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ were mediocre at best. Her best song, ‘Super Life’, from her excellent 2007 album Funk This, was the only pleasant moment in the 75 minute set.
If it’s the mixing and sound checking that let Khan down, then I’m probably being unfair to her. But the fact that her backing singers sounded decent, and at times the band were good, suggests otherwise. From where I was sat, it was quite sad.
Nevertheless, the crowd were up and dancing by the end, proving, perhaps, that people will listen to any old stuff. I just hope it was the mixing not Chaka Khan’s voice that was at fault on Friday. But after a series of mixed reviews from the summer, perhaps Khan’s best days are sadly behind her.