Over this past week in California, British electro-funk icons Jamiroquai returned to the U.S. after thirteen long and agonizing years of silence. The legendary group is touring the world on the heels of their Automaton LP, unveiled just over a year ago to widespread acclaim among the band’s most arduous fans. Yet the release was somewhat confounding, and it did not exactly set casual fans on fire. Many were surprised by the band’s updated, grown n’ sexy sound, which is certainly a departure from their youthful acid-jazz adventures.
A sizable portion of Jamiroquai’s fanbase clutches onto the classic JMQ-era of their first three albums. Following Automaton‘s release, people seemed to have their curiosities collectively piqued and wanted to know what this freaking fuss was all about. To their credit, Jamiroquai harnessed the sum of this pressurized energy and stepped into the spotlight—and themselves. The band delivered a mammoth return performance in San Francisco on April 17th, bookended by strong showings in the Mojave Tent at Coachella on April 13th and 20th.
Rolling Stone led their Coachella coverage with Jamiroquai, and the notoriously blasé crowd was clearly wowed as frontman Jay Kay serenaded the throbbing desert masses in the now-omnipresent, color-changing LED Automaton headpiece. They transformed the Mojave Tent into something of a UK discotheque, as thousands watched in real-time around the globe on the Youtube Coachella live-stream.
For the fourth song, Long Beach, California, legend Snoop Dogg—blunt in one hand, bedazzled custom goblet-microphone in the other—joined the Space Cowboy during “Dr. Buzz”, an ode to the sticky-icky off the band’s most recent LP. The boys behind them pumped out the funkadelic hip-hop groove embedded in the song, while the DoggFather laced up rhymes found within his own “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Gin & Juice.” Otherwise, for the remainder of the show, the band stuck to their core setlist from the past year or so, mixing a couple of new compositions in with their timeless anthems like “Cosmic Girl”, “Alright”, and “Canned Heat”, among other standards.
As Friday came to a close at Coachella, running out of time, the band aborted the instantly recognizable pianos of their biggest hit “Virtual Insanity”. Jay Kay instead instructed the band to launch into the emotionally-charged “Love Foolosophy”. Never one to be content in satiating the greater populace, the focused and fiery frontman chose to deliver the stronger song to his hardcore fans, in spite of the former’s enduring popularity. Class move indeed, along with omitting “Automaton” from the U.S. live performances—a song which despite the band’s best efforts, has not caught on well.
What we’ve learned is that in 2018, Jay Kay clearly listens and responds to his fans; they were vocal about their displeasure with the song “Automaton”. Alas, it was not played at any of the three concerts after its television appearance.
As the electro-funk juggernaut barreled into the Bay Area for their proper U.S. return—hosted at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Tuesday, April 17th—loyalty and super fandom for the group would proudly be on display everywhere in the city. Beginning on Saturday, drummer Derrick McKenzie would step into the San Francisco night with a fantastic DJ set at Halcyon, opening for the legendary mixmaster Miguel Migs with a tasty hour-plus of classic Deep House. On Monday afternoon, McKenzie would host a drum workshop at local funk haunt, Boom Boom Room, where the skinsman demonstrated his virtuoso on the kit and explained how he applies his skill set to the band. McKenzie spoke at length to the assembly, regaling fans with personal tales of recording, performing, and even a variety of Jamiroquai narratives running over their entire career, offering a precious peek into just how it all goes down. A fascinating few hours with a humble professional, who afterward, graciously held a short audience with any of the attendees who asked to meet him.
Thousands of the most hardcore Jamiro-freaks traveled from around the country to take in the first proper U.S. Jamiroquai show since 2005; I personally live here in Northern California and had been patiently waiting for this day to come for a very, very long time. Most American fans had virtually given up on the idea of Jamiroquai ever returning to this country, but as we soaked up their week-long sojourn through California, the hype machine shifted into a high gear and anticipation reached a fever pitch. The band’s name was on the tip on so many tongues, all over social media feeds, and the stage was set for their triumphant re-emergence. Privately, some worried that they might not be prepared to live up to this level of hype. Predictably and atypically, elitist Americans and the (supposed) pop culture cognoscenti continued to throw rocks at the throne. This was nothing new to this particular crew, who had long battled assertions that they had appropriated, or that their sound was dated. So when Jay Kay and company arrived in the Bay, they didn’t just have chips on their shoulders, they carried a collective ten-ton boulder.
Once the San Francisco show finally arrived, walking into the sold-out BGCA among a posse nearing fifty was nothing short of surreal. Many like-minded funk freaks had prioritized this event on the music calendar, and given that Jamiroquai hadn’t played the U.S. in a very long time, people flew in from all over. Paired with the rabid, fanatical Jamily that began lining up at the venue as early as 7 a.m., and you begin to get a sense of the palpable, tangible passion that was present for this performance.
Slowly but surely, the 8500-capacity venue filled up with an extremely diverse and eclectic squadron of fans. Immediately, the wide-swath of demographics that made up this vibrant audience was noticeable. It felt like utopia before the band even began playing, as men and women, white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, European, gay and straight, couples, and lone rangers swarmed the place, dressed fly as hell and ready to dance—all peoples checked their personal and political baggage at the door and came together united under the ‘Jamily’ flag of funk. We were here to take in a monumental concert of epic proportions, and the ecstatic energy among fans inside the venue was rapturous as we approached the opening bell.
“Shake It On” > “Little L”
[Video: Heady Flair]
The entire Jamiroquai band—sans frontman—took the stage swiftly at 8:40 p.m. and launched into Automaton’s thunderous opening jam, “Shake it On.” The crowd reacted with a decent cheer, but as the first verse approached, Jay Kay casually sauntered to the front of the stage aglow in his LED headdress. When the cat in the hat offered the lyrical question “So What Can I Do?”, the people definitely took notice and said so. Musical director Matt Johnson’s bumping clavinet rode the first of several merciless four-on-the-floor beats from longtime drummer McKenzie, as did the sensual tones of their backup singers, affectionately dubbed “Cosmic Babes”. The crew settled into this song that was born to open their show, and by the time Jay Kay sang the foreboding lyric “before I step on Mars”, the audience had fully come alive. After the second verse, the enigmatic singer offered a salutation in “San Francisco…”, and this time the sold-out massive responded with an eruption that in no uncertain terms expressed their tremendous gratitude for Jamiroquai’s return.
After a standard run through the opener, the band segued into “Little L” with gusto, nailing the transition as they’ve continued to do throughout this touring cycle. Fans of the local cultural institution, the Grateful Dead—the band that fifty-plus years ago in the Haight/Ashbury area of San Francisco first introduced this sort of conceptual/intentional “two-fer” to improvisational-focused music—very much appreciated the opening segue, and again conveyed this sentiment with authority. Kay looked fantastic in a special-edition Adidas tracky with matching Adidas trainers and crisp denim jeans. He recalled shades of youth in that outfit, but was transformed by the ever-present Automaton hat.
The patented Jay Kay headpiece was again a wonder in itself. It worked in tandem with the LED screens that projected a variety of psychedelic and retrofitted imagery above the band. Jay gave off both an affable aura and a stoic defiance. This dude knew he had something to prove, and every step, every note, every spin and kick was delivered with laser-sharp focus. The band’s entire presentation and production was profound; within fifteen minutes of thrilling funkification, it was readily apparent to both the band and fans that this would be a night to remember, fueled by an indescribable, kinetic energy.
Now, it was time to get nasty; next up on the docket was a “song from way back,” as McKenzie counted off “Kids”, a rockin’ rager from 1995’s much-heralded sophomore LP The Return of the Space Cowboy. The charging, guitar-driven tune was accentuated by the frontman’s patented wild dance moves—leaps, chops, and kicks of yesteryear came flying out again. People were shocked; it’s no secret that Jay Kay has suffered from serious back ailments over the past half-decade, causing him to cancel a series of shows last year, both before and after back surgery. As such, he’s gained a little weight as his mobility has been restricted, so his stamina and onstage movement have somewhat suffered accordingly. At Coachella a few days earlier, he’d moved fairly well but was clearly playing it safe. During San Francisco’s “Kids”, Kay felt truly at home, and he frolicked and bounced with reckless, youthful abandon.
Jay Kay commented on the sweet smell of ganja that permeated the air, as his own beloved ode to the medicine “The Return of the Space Cowboy” emerged to another roar. This obviously was the first time Jamiroquai had visited the States since California legalized recreational weed, and they appeared to marvel at the clouds of cannabis smoke wafting above the sea of dancing domes. The cherished chestnut was unveiled with an exquisite rendition, as bassist Paul Turner really dug into the immortal low-end theory that defines this ageless wonder. The entire group coalesced into a whirling dervish of soundscapes, as Kay scatted and crooned around the groove like only he can.
He nimbly scampered around the stage, betraying his age and injury with nary a f*ck given. The Cosmic Babes captivated, and Kay responded with a hair-raising riff on the “You got it” refrain. The band’s dynamics in this section were positively flawless, and “Space Cowboy” was the first jaw-dropping example of extended jamming and instrumental brilliance from the entire ensemble. Led by the robust rhythm section of McKenzie, Turner, and longtime percussionist extraordinaire Sola Akingbola, Jamiroquai glided through a glorious outro that worked the libidinous masses into hysteria. And I like what you’re doing to me.
[Video: Heady Flair]
Guitarist Rob Harris’ ethereal licks swam with Johnson’s analog synth flurries, and Jay Kay called up 1996’s Traveling Without Moving global fan-fave “Alright”. The MD pivoted to Rhodes, and the timeless chords sang to the moon, toward dearly departed Jamiroquai co-founder Toby Smith. It was the late Toby’s heavenly keyboard prowess and sturdy songwriting skills that defined the band’s early career nearly as much as Kay did himself. Johnson would often borrow a page or two from Smith’s book of lush voicings and memorable ivory patterns throughout the evening, but never so poignantly as during “Alright”. For seven-plus minutes, the high-vibe-and-imbibed crowd sang the lyrics in exuberant unison, as Turner slapped the bass with domineering precision, walking the groove between Johnson, McKenzie, Harris, and the others.
“Alright” and “Cloud 9”
[Video: Heady Flair]
During “Space Cowboy” a foreign object had been heaved onstage left, where Turner and the Cosmic Babes were located. After the enchanting “Alright”, Kay ambled to that area and scooped up what appeared to be (roughly) a quarter-pound of cannabis in a gallon Ziploc bag. He appeared clearly moved and bemused by this gift, remarking that whomever was responsible was a “proper fella, a real gentleman”, and that it was “ a very kind gesture”, before acknowledging that this might be a bit of a problem on the plane back home. He also joked that even Snoop could likely not get through that bag in 3 days. (It was later revealed that the gift was courtesy of Mendocino County’s legal organic cannabis farm Shepherd’s Meadow.)
Not coincidentally, the rest of the show was a veritable blur, as Jamiroquai cruised into another gear for Automaton’s breezy “Cloud 9”, unveiled with a new arrangement on the intro that caught the alert attention of quite a few fans. Trusty veteran percussionist Akingbola shined behind his arsenal of congas, obscure drums, cymbals, blocks, toys, and whatever else he has back there to concoct the sizzling rhythms he did on “Cloud 9”. His presence, though understated, remains absolutely essential to the Jamiroquai sound and vibe—a fact he proved time and again with his spirited, inventive playing.
The affair shifted into higher elevation as the group detonated the driving “Main Vein” from 2001’s criminally underrated masterpiece, A Funk Odyssey. The gigantic and aggressive disco kiss-off was sent soaring into the night with a sassy attitude and unforgiving swagger. Backing vocalists Elle Cato, Hazel Fernandes, and Valerie Etienne had their work cut out for them, taking on Beverley Knight’stitanic bridge. As a side note, allow me to be the first to declare that the Cosmic Babes tore the roof off this mutha with a steezy series of vocal gymnastics that left just about every jaw in the auditorium on the floor. The programmed horns and ever-present synth strings were somewhat of an acquired taste, but there was absolutely no denying Rob Harris’s searing guitar riffage, or the spicy, steady mobbin’ from the babes in the back.
[Video: Heady Flair]
Jamiroquai followed that blistering number with another deep cut, Traveling’s “Use the Force”, an intoxicating romp that Jay explained (at Coachella) was written for the World Cup but never used in that capacity. As usual, it was the warrior Sola Akingbola who led the Force-fueled charge, with thrilling, spirited riddims underneath swinging Rhodes and sensualized vocal harmonies. Akingbola kept things fresh by employing lusty Afro-Cuban Bata rhythms underneath the second verse, and Jay seemed to mine a certain pizzazz from these savory Latino beats that breathed beneath the boogie time. Jay spastically worked himself into a dithers, and Akingbola never seemed to break a sweat, his toothy-grin visible from the last row of the arena. Transfixed, we could literally feel it in the air; the audience began to hop, skip, and skank along to the rhythms, mimicking our fearless leader’s exuberance as the embattled and emboldened singer held nearly nine-thousand strong in the palm of his hand. By the conclusion of “Use the Force”, there was nary a doubt in the hall, we were bearing witness to history.
The first song that where the audience thought they could collectively come up for air was “Hey Floyd”, the lone track from 2010’s middling LP Rock Dust Light Star. Surprisingly, the tune came alive in the auditorium; its haunting piano intro, anthemic chords, and chorus appeared to resonate with Americans’ inherent will (or need) to win at all costs. Turner and McKenzie dipped into a righteous ragga riddim, another nod to the spliffy origins of this crew. Heads from all over the world began to sing the righteous reggae harmonies along with the Cosmic Babes, who did their best I-Threes behind Jay’s toastings. This was the only song performed that was written by the entire core group- Kay, McKenzie, Akingbola, Harris, Turner, and Johnson.
A thumping bass drum, funky guitars, and a disco Rhodes groove announced the classic Travelingsingle “Cosmic Girl”, the band leaning heavy on the synth strings and analog sounds as a Studio 54-styled dance party exploded into hyperspace, sending revelers from the dancefloor into the rafters in every possible direction. The band has added a super-disco-breakdown, an almost Bossa styled passage in the middle, and the backing vocalists really shined atop this song with a seminal, 70’s smoking section. Kay took the opportunity to sign a few t-shirts that fans had tossed onto the stage. Better yet, at one point, Jay motioned for a fan to hand over their original vinyl pressing of 1992’s Acid Jazz debut single “When You Gonna Learn”, which the singer marveled at for a moment before signing it with a Sharpie and returning it to the hyperventilating fan in the first few rows.
After a run through “Don’t Give Hate a Chance”, the band reached back to High Times: Singles 1992-2006 for the wildly-popular “Runaway”. With its coy, boyish come-ons, irresistible chorus, and catty attitude, the song is a snapshot and a sign of those Jay Kay playboy times. Meanwhile, the enthralling frontman was so impassioned by Akingbola’s aphrodisiac riddims on “Runaway” that he unleashed an absolutely furious flurry of moves—a flying kick, then struck a pose, and four consecutive spins across the front of the stage before casually shimmying back into the chorus. What bad back? The mesmerized audience was levitating, as the band and their fearless leader soldiered on past the hundred-minute mark, focused and aflame.
Thus far, the concert had already exceeded even the most hardcore fans’ lofty expectations, but we were about to have our minds blown when Jay Kay made reference to a video shoot here in the Bay Area way back when. With that, the squad fired up the bombastic bass that cocks and loads Traveling Without Moving’s leviathan title track. Paul Turner did his damndest to rechristen the iconic bassline his own, as for nearly two minutes, McKenzie, Sola, Turner, Harris and the crew cooked up some sizzlin’ stew. The Cosmic Babes oohed and ahhed behind the electrifying singer as he conducted the entire band, be it a fleeting glance, hand signals embedded in his dance maneuvers, or merely a facial expression at any or all of his faithful troops.
As the jam got cooking Turner cut loose on the swag train, poppin’ basslines that would make any and all saints shudder. Showing merciless precision and impeccable fret control, this bass bully was a harbinger of low-end gluttony to come. As the song began to pick up steam, Akingbola began a dizzying array of techniques that completely revolutionized the already-fantastic groove. Buried behind an arsenal of percussion artillery, in his stealthy mohawk, sunglasses and futbol jersey, Sola Akingbola was the low-key MVP all night long.
On Monday at the workshop, drummer McKenzie was asked about how Jay Kay was as the Jamiroquai bandleader, since he technically doesn’t play an instrument and cannot read music. Derrick explained that Jay Kay was a bandleader in the traditional sense, and beyond the generic blueprint of a verse/bridge/chorus, everything onstage is pretty improvised. As such, the entire ensemble watches Jay’s every move and follows each frequency, always alert for his command, however it is delivered. As the band careened through the spastic funk of “Traveling Without Moving”, it was a marvel to watch this magnificent performer lead his troupe in the tradition of the greats. Elements of James Brown, Prince, and even contemporary firestarters like D’Angelo, they all fronted a regimen with military precision—the fashion in which we bore witness to Jay this evening.
The entire performance was astounding from start to finish, but a showbiz pro, Jay Kay saved some of the best for last. In a surprise move that shocked even the most dedicated believers, Kay captained the crew into the serene Dynamite single “Seven Days in Sunny June”, a beautiful number that was delivered with appropriate emotion and panache from the weary troubadour. The song elicited an impassioned response from fans as we all asked responsively “Why’d you have to drop that bomb on me?” Once again, it was the mystical tones and feverish vocals from Elle Cato, Hazel Fernandes, and Valerie Etienne that shimmered and sizzled behind Kay’s pleading lead. The band performed a stirring version of this semi-ballad, but it was merely a bait-and-switch for the fury that was en route.
The familiar rolling synth-bassline from “Revolution 1993” could only mean one thing; now, they were not going to finally pull out a song from their organic acid jazz debut Emergency on Planet Earth. Instead, they built up the “Revolution” vamp into a fierce intro for their second biggest hit, “Canned Heat”, found on 1999’s future-funk opus Synkronized, but most well-known in the U.S. as the Napoleon Dynamite jam. Once the band turned the corner and the song was revealed, there was nothing left to do but dance.
Jay Kay’s never been one to lean toward faith or worship, but when fell to a Jesus Christ pose, the band took that hand-off to the house. Jamiroquai collectively unleashed a torrid assault of dance-party energy that will go unrivaled for a long, long time to come. Veering in and out of the “Revolution” theme one more time, then settled into a captivating improvisational passage that showed off the skill set and connectivity of the entire band. Jay repeatedly belted out the enormous chorus with the verve of 1999, but the cagey veteran’s smirk of 2018. It was a tangible moment in time, as the band headed toward the evening’s home stretch.
The whole night was extremely emotional, but as we neared the end of this supernatural journey, ‘twas those bright bouncing pianos and “magic formulas” of “Love Foolosophy” that finally opened the floodgates for real. Partly because I couldn’t help it, partly because I was wearing sunglasses as we danced to a mystical muse, I made no attempts to stifle the flow nor wipe them away. I just let the tears spill down my cheeks, which were now swollen wide, bulbous from the otherworldly vibration and infectious grooves swimming all night long. The entire audience was falling in love, belting out “I don’t want the world I want you,” at both strangers and lovers alike.
[Video: Matt Codina]
The California sunset lyric got what was likely the largest roar of the night, and before I knew it, the waterworks were sweetly infectious. Several folks around us, old friends who’d come from all over, and brand new ones alike, we all just had ourselves a good cry while we shook what our mamas gave us. The pure essence of unrequited, unabashed joy and love. Undeniable evidence of one of the happiest nights of our blessed lives. We were waiting so long! The band slowly left the stage after “LoveFool” to a thunderclap of an ovation, as the capacity crowd hooted and hollered at the top of their lungs. This is one of the only times I can remember where the fans cheered considerably louder at the end of the show than at the beginning.
The band retook the stage after being properly called back for an encore, this audience, ignored for thirteen long years, was not going out with a whimper. Some of us wished for “Deeper Underground”, others held out hope for “Supersonic”, as both tracks have closed various Jamiroquai shows of the past decade. Alas, the band chose to forward their single most defining song “Virtual Insanity”. Yes, the one-hit wonder, the flash in the pan, the song that caught lightning in a bottle back in 1997. An arena brimming with people still seemed to know every last damn word, and we sang them jubilantly, spilling out into the brisk Bay night, collectively content to be governed by this glistening love we have.
In retrospect, this mega-hyped show was even more magical than anybody possibly could have imagined; we’d dreamt it up a certain way, but it was even better. On April 20th, the band returned to Coachella for week two, and delivered to them the songs they’d played in San Francisco but had not forwarded in the desert one week earlier. All reports say that Jay was again in fine form, hitting the high notes and moving around with a zesty flow, and that the band followed suit with a sturdy performance that wowed the Mojave Tent for the second straight Friday.
It’s safe to say that Jamiroquai went three-for-three this week in the state of California, and I’ve yet to read a single negative review, or come upon a cross word about their performances. We can collectively concur that the first leg of the 2018 U.S. Jamiroquai mission was an astounding success. I hope that now, once he is safely back at Chillington frolicking merrily with his two young daughters, Jay Kay will reflect on the experience similarly. We all can begin to look forward to the return to New York City on September 8th, and then Suwannee Hulaween seven weeks later.
With all the horrors that surround us in this country in 2018, and certainly around the world, it’s imperative that as human beings we seek out and celebrate beauty, within each other, the arts and the cultures that surround. Life-affirming experiences like this one, thirteen years or even a lifetime in the making, they make this all worth living. With the weight of the world’s ugliness resting firmly on our collective shoulders, something, anything has got to give. But for one week, and particularly one magical, unforgettable San Francisco night, the beloved band Jamiroquai made sure it did, and how. On behalf of nearly nine-thousand beating hearts blasted wide-open, Sir Jason Kay—as we loosely like to say in the Bay—Thank you for a real good time!
“Seeing Jamiroquai play in 2005 opened the door for my love of traveling for concerts and festivals. It led to my first Coachella the following year, and now it has come full circle, my seeing the band at Coachella and San Francisco in 2018, and they are stronger than ever!”
Pete, 37, Minneapolis, MN
“This band is one of the reasons I picked up a bass guitar. We had been waiting for this moment. Jay Kay had something to prove, this show in SF was his comeback statement. Jamiroquai exceeded the expectations of even the most hardcore fans.” Dave, 32, Atlanta. Bassist- HIVE MIND
“This show brought me more happiness than I ever could have imagined. I was in the front row and Jay sang right to me! I cried real tears of pure joy. Hands down the best night of my life! Now I am just hoping that that they see our US Jamiro-love, and they will come back!” Randi, 40, San Francisco, CA
“To go to San Francisco, CA and the West Coast for the very first time, to meet and share the experience with Jamily from all over the world, it was incredible. Taking in the huge crowd was overwhelming- in a good way- very exciting. The energy in the venue was so contagious, and now I am extremely excited for their NY gig this September.” Viv, 32, Brooklyn NY
“Seeing Jamiroquai in San Francisco for the first time after being a huge fan for so many years- it was exactly the sonic eargasm I had hoped for. The energy was simply electric that night. My son has been a fan since he was six years old, he turned 13 last month, and it made for a lifetime memory for us both. Jay and the band delivered a performance worthy of their legendary reputation.” Tim, 43, Reno, NV. Guitarist, Mojo Green
“SF marked my 10th Jamiroquai concert, but it ranks #1 in my book. A smaller venue than the European stadiums I had recently become accustomed to, the SF show opened the floodgate of memories back to 2005, those very intimate shows where Jamiroquai last gave their heart and soul to America.” Cynthia, Washington DC, (age not given)
“Jay Kay seemed so pleased by the obvious displays of love and appreciation from the crowd. It warmed my heart to see him realize that he truly has a dedicated, devoted, rabid fan base in the US. I’m sure he’s had his doubts over the years, and it was a great moment to witness the realization wash over him. I’m sure he felt some of that after weekend 1 of Coachella, but I think the SF response was on a completely different level.” Julie, 52, Seattle
“Jay Kay was on some kind of spirit quest or something tonight (in SF), because he outshone any of his performances this last year in every way tonight. He was busting tons of moves, just in a frenzy a lot of the time. His showmanship was on point as was his singing and riffing. This was the concert of my life. What a show!” Matt, 32, Huntington Beach, CA
“YES. SAN FRAN. ‘nuff said!” Paul, 50. UK. Bassist-Jamiroquai
Photos: Ross McIntire