The journey of Jamiroquai is one of many twists and turns, one born on the streets of London during the epic acid jazz/house years of the early ’90s. The club scene that later bore the rave scene, a community regenerating hippie ideals, club culture itself was one of Peace, Love, Unity and Respect, expanding sounds and psychedelia, and today is looked back upon fondly and with reverence.
The skinny skate kid whose beats and rhymes were supersonic melodies and entrancing rhythms assembled an organically groovy ensemble and named it Jamiroquai. Then he put on the Buffalo hat. Jay Kay is today a bandleader in the James Brown sense, the singer, the dance freak and the pimpslap B-Boy; although in their earliest incarnation, Jamiroquai was much more on an Earth trip, heady styles and boho-concerns were woven into epic lengthy rare groovy workouts. The music tried to dig deeper into the consciousness of their throngs of funkateers; the music eschewed the globalization and modernization of society, and the band tailored their songs to champion greener causes, whether it be rainforests or the mother herb. He walked with a swagger; Kay was immersed in culture, a British B-Boy with a penchant for the funk and R&B of ’70s groove and decidedly dope dance moves, along with a Stevie Wonder-esque voice that propelled him to a new, young, hip audience. His style and fashions impeccable, Jay aligned himself with musicians that could unearth dreamy new grooves, casually dipped in the retro style that bore acid jazz.
Beginning in 1992, with the refreshing and innovative 12″ When You Gonna Learn and the following debut album Emergency on Planet Earth, with the help of countless studio musicians of all trades, Jay Kay brought a world-conscious sonic brew to a scene known for constantly breaking new ground. Jamiroquai further cemented their significance with 1994’s The Return of the Space Cowboy, an album filled with otherworldly grooves and politically charged lyrics, beautiful melodies and successful chances taken. The band’s finest lineup emerged with Derrick McKenzie on drums, Stuart Zender on bass, founding member/keyboardist Toby Smith and percussionist Sola Akimbola. Incorporating pulsating house rhythms with seductive R&B anthems, augmented by a didgeridoo, a DJ, and a JB’s funky horn section, their live shows in this incarnation were expansive vehicles that broke backs out proper.
The release of 1997’s Traveling Without Moving was a more modern, synthesized, less organic-feeling record with a nod towards the clubs that had made the scene in which Jamiroquai was birthed. This record would put the band on the map worldwide, with the success of the anthemic “Virtual Insanity” and its ubiquitous music video featuring Kay dancing. Jay Kay’s Buffalo hat took on various forms, and the signature logo became recognizable in all corners of the globe. During this time, Jamiroquai sewed their oats all over the world, bringing an enormous band and sound to deliver their DJ D-Zire-enhanced organic clubland concoction. The 97-98 incarnation, sound and attack is considered both the best era of the band and the beginning of the changes that would alienate much of its grassroots, break up the Zender/Kay connection, and send Jamiroquai soul-searching for much of the next few years. Bassist Stuart Zender, long holding resentment towards the credit and recognition Jay Kay had received for the entire band, left the fold. It was to be a precursor to change that many longtime Jamiroquai funkateers would grow to dislike.
Zender’s absence was more than noticeable on subsequent albums like 1999’s Synkronized and 2001’s A Funk Odyssey. The band changed their sound, direction and content dramatically during this period. Jamiroquai phased out the hippie trappings, ditching the didgeridoo and later the horns. Their new sound brought string-filled dramatic disco energy gone digitized. It was lapped up in clubland quarters and remixed by many electronic artists. Late nights were kept globe-trotting and then retreating to Kay’s royal home, Buckinghamshire Manor. Jay Kay had made a transformation.
The band made many more changes during this period and toured the world in different incarnations, keeping the vibe alive but no longer breaking the new ground their first three records had. Jay Kay, a celebrity on a Justin Timberlake level in France, South America, Italy, Australia and Japan, struggled with the limelight, drugs, relationships and the absence of Zender and later, longtime collaborator and founding member keyboardist Toby Smith, who left the night before 2001’s U.S. tour was to begin. The band’s sound has since traversed an odd house/disco terrain, foregoing many of its jazzier, R&B sensibilities and organic grooves in search of a digitized pulsating dance thump. It worked to re-energize the band but failed as the band began to wane creatively in terms of stepping into new realms.
Ironically, the last time this writer saw Jamiroquai live was September 10th, 2001 – a show that displayed Jamiroquai in spiritual and identity disarray, yet still a solid force. After a four-year absence, the release of the new record Dynamite reintroduces Jamiroquai to a new generation that is only familiar with “Canned Heat” because it was featured in the popular film Napoleon Dynamite. It’s an apt irony that the new record burns fire yet gets panned by out-of-touch blogga-losers. At the October show at the newly opened Nokia Theater Times Square, many “Vote for Pedro” shirts were spotted, a corny example of how Jamiroquai fights to be relevant here in the States no matter how enormous a figure Jay Kay is globally.
I was indeed surprised to find out that Jamiroquai had sold out the 3K+ capacity Nokia in advance for two nights against British royalty, a reunited Cream down the block at Madison Square Garden. The different types of fans Jamiroquai attracted on this first cold and rainy autumn evening was remarkable: fashionistas, B-Boys, hippies, and hipsters, disco queens and silky sisters, and Wall Street glory days revisited. Who’s who and who’s hip?! It had been four long years since the once uber-hot British trendsetters were running shit with monumental performances at Roseland Ballroom with the blitzkrieg “Traveling Insanity” tour of 1997, or the deeper underground, dark disco en fuego of the “Odyssey” showcase the night before 9/11, and the groovers and shakers had long been awaiting Jamiroquai’s return to Gotham.
Jay Kay stormed the stage dancing his patented moonwalk-on-water, pop’n’lock steezo, and his band dropped into a vicious house-ified “Canned Heat,” the Synkronized single rechristened in Napoleon Dynamite. The house was up and dancing, standing room was limited, and up jumped the bourgeois boogie! Jamiroquai hit the disco breakdowns, and Jay was a whirlwind of motion while belting out the Studio 54 vibes. Instantly the room was transfixed, as the audience would remain amidst the squealing women and tidal waves of dancing droves.
Another single, Odyssey‘s “Little L,” followed – a cute and bouncing disco-house number that treads on the frozen lake of pop with that clubland edge that keeps it off the radio. It was evident early that despite their relative anonymity, this lineup was both well-rehearsed and finally confident in delivering their unique goods. Bridging the gap was the sexy-as-a-motherfucker “Cosmic Girl” from Traveling, which elicited shrieks and screams from those outer-spacial ladies who commanded the floor. The ‘Jam-massive’ danced as enigmatically as Mr. Kay to the space boogie sex machine. “Cosmic Girl” reawakened the sleeping giant, the sheer enormity of the future funk was transmitting gloriously through the Nokia soundboard and pushed the sonic envelope to another level, where it remained throughout the show.
Derrick McKenzie has been manning the drums since Space Cowboy, so when that glorious song was delivered in faithful and inspired fashion, it was Carter leading the troupe through the frenetic grooves. New bassist Paul Turner, in the fold only since April, held down the virtuoso Zender bass parts with seeming ease, and Matt Johnson‘s sultry rhythms on Rhodes had people finally getting over Toby Smith. “Space Cowboy” is a timeless anthem, one that encapsulates a moment in time and transcends changes in musical and social climate to claim relevancy today. The same can be said for the spirited take on Emergency‘s finale, “Revolution 1993,” which is a precursor to STS9 in both its sonic and social commentary. “Revolution 1993’s” powerhouse ghetto-tech drum & bass reached skyward in an emotional climax. Rob Harris, the guitarist whose joining Jamiroquai in 2000 has most affected its sound and energy, gave “Revolution” its hard-charging electricity.
“Dynamite” is a disco-funkdafied banger that deserves title track status. Jay’s passionate affair with disco has certainly hijacked the last three releases, and “Dynamite” is evidence that it can be done to supernatural proportions. The cold-as-ice vocals surf about a white-hot fatback disco, and on this night, the three female backup vocalists rode this wave to a seductive peak. Jamiroquai followed with their pop-flavored single “Seven Days In Sunny June,” a top-of-the-pops summer sing-along that made waves this past season. Its inviting acoustic guitars and soothing pianos push into contemporary arenas; however, it clearly resonated with funkateers, registering in the classic Jay Kay love song territory. He had many of the fine females in the Nokia pining away and singing along word-for-word.
“Light Years” is another prophetic track from Space Cowboy. Though the band tends to favor the newer material (much to the chagrin of this writer!), they simply cannot avoid the relevancy and timeless anthem that is “Light Years.” Pianos and a jazzy bottom end anchor this high-energy blast of caustic global warning, poignant modern irony wrapped in a then-ahead-of-its-time structure that continued to ‘wow’ in 2005.
“Use The Force” was a thunderous, charged Traveling Without Moving track that showcased the frenetic polyrhythms of percussionist Sola Akimbola, the second senior member behind Carter with a decade in the Jam’. He has always been the special blend, the Latin flavors and African riddims pulsate throughout his playing. Jay danced a feverish jig during “Force,” slip-sliding all over the stage while spitting melody and sweating up a storm.
Matt Johnson stepped to the forefront during Synkronized‘s dark and brooding “Black Capricorn Day,” a song I might have traded for an older classic. The band surprised most with the inclusion of a serious sleeper off of A Funk Odyssey. An up-tempo sexy vehicle that transcends any particular style, “You Give Me Something” was one of the highlights of the night, each player at his best and Jay pushing them to sonically seduce any and every broad in the joint. It was pure ecstasy, a climax of sorts, and Jay reminded the crowd they were the only North American audience to have heard this song live. Kay’s comment was a remarkable recollection, later made sweeter by the realization that the song was not in the set per usual but a repeat treat for the Big Apple after the events on that fateful September Tuesday.
Another disco track from Odyssey followed, the sweet sing-along lover’s quarrel “Love Foolosophy,” a speedy song with a huge vocal refrain and glowing female disco vox. Again, not a bad song, but a spot in the set that could have used any one of the countless classics omitted from the set, like “When You Gonna Learn,” “Emergency,” “Half the Man,” “Manifest Destiny” or “Traveling.” Even latter-day cuts like “Butterfly” were unfortunately absent from the performance.
They did, however, deliver an unbelievable version of this writer’s all-time favorite Jamiroquai jam – the crunkdafied “High Times” off Traveling. The cautionary tale of life in the fast lane was delivered in punishing, merciless fashion with a positively unshakeable groove. Jay’s dancing was a Whirling Dervish, his spirited vocals filling the room atop the crushing four-to-the-floor sonic boom that is “High Times.” The placement of the song, as the show began a slight turn downward, couldn’t have been better. Jay Kay is still the epic bandleader, still the skateboard B-Boy, a slave to every groove, and his steez remains produce fresh.
The newer jam “Time Won’t Wait” was just a buffer before the orgasmic anthem “Alright” was delivered with pomp and bombast and an undeniable dance groove. Sing-along refrains rang loudly throughout the new venue as nearly every ass in that spot was straight skanking out while Jay was reveling in adulation and crooning for the still-screaming females. Jamiroquai stretched out this party jam, with solos from most players and a trance-like break that just pulsed and pushed the riddim to outrageous proportions.
To cement the evening of reconnection and a sort of rebirth, Jamiroquai delivered an emphatic blast to close the show – a titillating encore. “Deeper Underground” is a sinister groove that is as heavy as these boys ever done gotten. It’s been remixed countless times and in a myriad of ways. The song’s hook and dive-bomb juno-bass are an infectious taste of organic clubland psychedelia. Jay took it even deeper, so much deeper, than the ominous eve before 9/11, when it was the highlight of that show. Tonight, he pushed and drove the band to the depths of distorted, digitized chaos, never forsaking the trance-like motion of its bouncing bottom end. Rob Harris brought his chunky funk with a dark side and challenged Carter to derive even more demented rhythms from within his now-tortured kit. Kay strutted like the smooth criminal that he is and told us they’d be back in March. And wit that, the funkateers and New York’s funkiest made their way into the London-esque dark rainy night.
Jamiroquai at Nokia Theatre Times Square
- Enter the Dragon
- Canned Heat
- Space Cowboy
- Cosmic Girl
- Revolution 1993
- Little L
- Seven Days in Sunny June
- Light Years
- Black Capricorn Day
- Use the Force
- Love Foolosophy
- Main Vein
- Time Won’t Wait
- High Times
- Deeper Underground