Return Of The Space Cowboy: Why Jamiroquai Playing The U.S. Has Everybody On Cloud 9 (B.Getz on L4LM)
Pioneering British electro-funk titans Jamiroquai have not played a concert in America since 2005, and it’s been a decade since bandleader Jay Kay told the media he planned to quit music to focus on flying helicopters and finding his future baby-mama. In the interim, an entire generation of American fans has been denied the glory that is Jamiroquai live, wishing and wondering whether they would ever experience the majesty of this music in concert on U.S. soil. Beginning with last spring’s promising comeback album Automaton, Jamiroquai has inched closer and closer to a stateside return, with hardcore American fans chomping at the bit as the band tore up festivals and stadiums the world over.
On the newest record, we learned that Jay Kay found his soulmate and started a family, he’s accumulated a myriad of sportscars, flown quite a few choppers as well; transmitting from aboard Cloud 9, the enigmatic singer has made it clear the band is ready to make up for lost time. Heavily hinted at since Automaton‘s release, it seems our collective prayers have finally been answered, with no less than five highly anticipated appearances scheduled for this side of the Atlantic.
After so many years of stateside silence, it’s high time to delve into why Jamiroquai’s return to the U.S. is getting so much buzz across the interwebs. Please enjoy this detailed dive into the Way-Back Machine, a personalized primer on the band as we run down their historical relevance, and celebrate Jamiroquai’s return to the United States with a deafening roar.
“Just Another Story” – Montreux Jazz 1995
[Video: Zsolt Horváth]
Jamiroquai’s sonic styles and funky aesthetics have found their way into pop music, modern funk, electronic, and even inform jam band trends too. From STS9 to The Motet, Deep Banana Blackout, The Main Squeeze, Turkuaz, or even Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Jamiroquai has inspired and influenced generations of jam culture with a patented brand of jazzy, soul-fueled, organic dance music. Over the course of their lengthy absence, one can hear Jamiroquai’s direct influence on U.S. radio, be it Bruno Mars or Daft Punk, both Grammy-winning recording artists that owe a debt in substance and gratitude to the path Jamiroquai blazed. Millennial heroes Tyler the Creator, Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper, and The Internet have all publicly championed them in the press and on stage, putting the quasi-forgotten band’s name back in lights.
The name Jamiroquai blends the concept of a “jam-session” with the tribe of Iroquois, as singer Jay Kay assembled a musically-tight and socially-aware ensemble that came of age in the Acid-Jazz era of early 90’s Britain. This band of badasses rode in on bubonic basslines, classic funk drum breaks, DJ cuts, a raucous horn section, and spirited vocal deliveries from a magnetic, charismatic frontman. Breaking in behind the success of their peers Brand New Heavies, Sony Music won a bidding war for Jamiroquai’s services, and the label would release the band’s prolific output over the next decade.
Tokyo, Ebisu 1995
Kicking down the door in late 1992 with a demonstrative debut single “When You Gonna Learn?”, Jamiroquai was instantly impossible to categorize or quantify. 1993’s debut LP Emergency on Planet Earth was an anachronism in the culture, a vibrant fusion funk drawing on obvious influences like Stevie Wonder and more obscure inspirations such as Gil Scott Heron. Jamiroquai was born of the acid jazz/acid house revolution. They uncorked marathon sessions that fit right into English dance music culture, and built up a dedicated, vocal following. Jamiroquai were nothing if not innovative, even as the rock press slagged them early on for their retrofitted stylings.
After the band made a sharp impression with Emergency, vocalist/B-Boy/bandleader Jay Kay recruited young bassist-extraordinaire Stuart Zender to join founder/keyboardist Toby Smith. The three would synchronize as the foundation for the group’s finest era and offerings. From within Smith’s sublime songwriting and riveting Rhodes work, Kay mined the Zen to unleash his torrent of torrid lyrical exercises; soul-drenched soprano that walked the spectrum from falsetto to croon, plus a dash of hip-hop swagger to boot. Crystallized versions of “Hooked Up” and “Too Young To Die” show an unprecedented range and attack, as Jay Kay made his presence felt and heard with frenzied displays of vocal gymnastics to match the band’s machine-gun funk workouts.
Their sophomore album and crowning jewel, 1994’s The Return of Space Cowboy, is a smoked-out celebration of all things funk, soul, jazz, trip-hop, and a prototype for the sonic gumbo we lovingly call “jam”. Zender’s virtuosic bass lines glide atop the pulsating drums of newly recruited beat-machine Derrick McKenzie, amid horn blasts and record scratches, the didjeridoo reverberated from the furious jamming styles. All-world percussionist Sola Akingbola joined the fray, mixing tribal riddims with elements of reggae, afrobeat, and dub. Wallis Buchanan delivered the patented didjeridoo jams—at the time, it was a calling card for the band’s unmistakable sound—as was (the then-innovative) onstage turntablist DJ D-Zire, who cut up vinyl with the group in real time. “Journey to Arnhemland” is fantastic voyage in shanti-bass long before that sound ever made it to Burning Man, while the grandiose beauty of the title track remains stunning nearly twenty-five years on.
Jay Kay’s wild capoeira-infused, B-Boy dance routines accompanied the band’s kaleidoscopic adventuring, and his persona became a crucial element of the band’s performances. Despite clearly paying homage to their forefathers, Jamiroquai rewrote the rulebook for what’s possible from a live funk band. Have a listen to live takes on “Mr. Moon”, “Light Years” and later “High Times” from the classic lineup/era. The group organically blossomed into a veritable jamband, without ever plugging into the burgeoning scene that was simultaneously taking shape across the Atlantic (it’s safe to say they were not even aware that there was such a scene in the States). They had an improv-heavy set that rotated tunes frequently, took off on wayward explorations, and never seemed to play a song just exactly the same way twice.
Phoenix Festival 1997
With three full-length LPs and five years of steady gigging across Europe and beyond, Jamiroquai had established themselves as underground kings on the global come-up, with more commercial success directly in their path. “Virtual Insanity,” from 1996’s wildly-popular Travelling Without Moving, saw the band achieve multi-platinum sales and international acclaim for their groundbreaking single and accompanying music video. With it came big egos, interpersonal disputes, MTV awards, and their first world tour, which brought them to the US for a series of theater dates. They were on every radio station and television talk circuit, on every club’s soundsystem, and booming out of every car stereo; Jamiroquai was ubiquitous in 1997.
This particular space and time is widely considered to be the band at its absolute zenith, and the music speaks for itself. Peep the timeless bounce of anthem “Alright”, the translucent romance of “Cosmic Girl”, tribalized mayhem juxtaposed with salacious R&B on “Use the Force“, the Caucasian cannabis skank of “Driftin Along”, the ungodly funk and fury of “High Times”, and Travelling Without Moving‘s title track. This material was a clear evolution from the first two albums, with Jamiroquai diversifying bonds and dropping mad bombs that continued to defy genre.
The classic era of Jamiroquai came to a close when Stuart Zender left the band acrimoniously in 1998; Traveling Without Moving was sadly the last record for this particular lineup, and the band’s trademark sound continued to evolve as the personnel changed. A new era was cemented with the release of 1999’s Synkronized, a departure in more ways than one. This album aesthetically turned a corner with futuristic elements and textures, fully embracing new technology, electronic music, drum machines, sampling. This approach was met with mixed reviews from longtime funkateers, as Nick Fyffe replaced Zender but did little to help fans forget the beloved young bassist.
Twenty years on, the music on Synkronized remains ahead of its time, which is nothing if not the Jamiroquai brand. Synkronized lacked the jazzy explorations of earlier work but broke new ground (“Butterfly“, “King for a Day”), and placed a laser focus on the electronic dance idiom (“Planet Home”, “Supersonic”). The embryonic seeds for what the U.S. labeled “jamtronica” were flourishing across the pond, as Jamiroquai barrelled in on the year 2000.
[Video: The Tribe with the Vibe]
Wallis Buchanan and the didj jams were phased out on 2001’s criminally underrated A Funk Odyssey, which would also be keyboardist/founding member Toby Smith’s last recording with the band. (Smith would sadly pass away last April after a lengthy illness; his contributions to Jamiroquai will live on forever.) In spite of an evolution away from their organic roots, the funk returned in a major way as advertised. A Funk Odyssey explored even more realms of dance music culture (“You Give Me Something”, “Little L”, “Twenty Zero One”), with the band utilizing fabrics native to house, nu-disco, and even techno during yet another sonic reinvention. With the exception of “Black Crow”, which lamented the absence of spirituality in society, Kay began to shy away from overtly socially conscious lyrics. Conversely, their music and messages became far more accessible and universal as they matured.
The songwriting on AFO was pared down into simpler arrangements, but the hooks became meatier, the choruses more anthemic. Club culture was always alive and well inside of Jamiroquai, but by 2002 it had moved to the forefront; much as the jam community in the U.S. was gravitating to electronic stylings. There was (and remains) a deep divide between old-school fans of the Zender/Toby-helmed acid jazz/groove era, and younger Jamiro-freaks who were introduced to the band’s more modern sounds by way of club remixes and tastemaker DJs. A Funk Odyssey is the proverbial tipping point of this discussion, and if I may humbly opine, the last truly great Jamiroquai album.
From the turn of the millennium, things began to trend in the wrong direction for Jamiroquai in the United States. Look no further than their show at Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC on September 10, 2001. After the tragic events of 9/11, Jamiroquai’s U.S. promo tour was aborted, and the band returned to England after only one show. Synkronized single “Canned Heat” was curiously reborn into American culture, getting featured in the slapstick comedy film Napolean Dynamite. This newfound zeitgeist was coupled with the unrelated Dynamite LP, released to little fanfare in 2005. As a result, Jamiroquai became interminably linked with that movie’s unabashed silliness (the scene is hilarious, after all); by proxy, the band devolved into somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek punchline for a generation of music fans. Instead of being seen through the prism of innovation and eclecticism as they should, fans were turning up at their shows wearing “Vote for Pedro” tee shirts.
In late 2005, a seemingly under-the-radar mini-tour of North America featured a slew of new band members, including the tremendous bassist Paul Turner (Annie Lennox) and keyboardist Matt Johnson, the latter becoming Jay Kay’s principal songwriting partner. The pair joined guitarist Rob Harris, who’d quickly become a trusty asset to Jay Kay with his sharp and dynamic attack. Longtime members Akingbola and McKenzie round out the band’s modern core lineup that tours to this day. The new band acquired some long overdue mojo, and Jamiroquai set about tearing up packed houses in the fall of 2005. The quick tour saw the invigorated crew destroying rooms from Atlantic City to Chicago, Los Angeles to two sold-out engagements at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy Theater. Walking out of that magnificent show into the blustery New York night, the feel-good vibes were fleeting.
As he left the stage, Jay promised a return in March of 2006; now we know that 2005 theater run would be the last time that Jamiroquai set foot in the United States (or Canada for that matter) for thirteen long, agonizing years. Those of us who were lucky enough to have tasted the magic of live Jamiroquai up through 2005 have longed for what might have been. Trapped in funk purgatory, it felt like a stillness in time.
In the interim, Jay Kay and company toyed with the idea of quitting music altogether, coming together in 2010 to record the largely-forgettable Rock Dust Light Star, an album that never even saw proper release in the States for nearly two years. “White Knuckle Ride” and “She’s a Fast Persuader” stuck out from the bunch, but for the most part, fans were left wanting. Getting ignored like that can certainly explain the lack of touring over here, yet the band did numerous support dates around the world. Year after year, Jamiroquai would play a select assortment of high-profile concerts in soccer stadiums globally, dotting their itinerary with exclusive and expensive private engagements for the world’s elite. Their global popularity never waned, it was American’s fickle tastes that always did; Jamiroquai played concerts of all sizes and varieties around the world while the United States was denied the privilege. Yet a glimmer of hope remained.
U.S. tour dates seemed more and more unlikely as time wore on, a distant dream deferred, would the space cowboy ever return? That haze finally lifted with 2017’s encouraging cosmic reboot, as Automaton proved the crew had more than a little petro left in their tank. The most striking additions are the fantastic “Cosmic Babes”- Valerie Etienne, Lorraine McIntosh, and Elle Cato provide mesmerizing, shimmering backing vocals that act as a sizzling foil for the frontman. Harris and Turner specifically have proven to shine in this era, and Johnson’s arsenal of keyboards creates a wall of sound. Despite the lack of horns, the new material is a gigantic leap toward the stars. The first album in seven years is chock-full of dancefloor burners ready for the stage. Slabs on slabs of disco-fueled bass grooves, walls of analog synth, bombastic electro-beats, and the trademark Jay Kay attitude–all of it a bit more mature, and trading in sophistication.
The kickoff “Shake it On” was born to open a concert, it’s thunderous bottom-end, sexy clavinet, and rump-shaking funk is the ultimate proclamation: We’re baaaaack! “Dr. Buzz” is the band doing their best intergalactic Steely Dan, “Cloud 9” continues in a tradition we’ve come to love; while the title track, and stutter-step smooth “Vitamin” offer a glimpse into the mad future. For the first time in several albums, some authentic throwback hip-hop grooves come to the surface within the park jam “Nights Out in the Jungle“. We can only hope that “Nights” and “Vitamin” find their way onto the stage when the band finally returns to the States.
After hinting at the possibility throughout 2017, Jamiroquai finally announced that they would indeed be returning to the USA several times in 2018. With five dates unveiled, the band carefully curated a concert slate with two appearances at Coachella in April and stand-alone shows at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (April 17th) and New York City’s Forrest Hills Stadium (September 8th). Quite possibly the most earth-shattering news of all, on Friday Jamiroquai was revealed as a headliner for the sixth annual Suwannee Hulaween, in a stealthy official video featuring the Jamiroquai “Buffalo Man”—subtle but undeniable proof that Jay Kay and his band will appear at the legendary Spirit of Suwannee Music Park this fall.
Jamiroquai is without question “the ultimate get” for any festival. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is the most exciting book in Suwannee Hulaween’s already-storied history. Being intimately familiar with the Hulaween magic, and having caught this band on each of their four US tours (1997, 1999, 2001, 2005), I can unequivocally declare that Jamiroquai at Suwannee Hulaween is nothing short of a match made in heaven. The HULA community and Suwannee River are brimming with the type of vibrant energy that is tailor-made for a Jamiroquai dance party. The festival cuts a wide swath between traditional jamband vibes and psychedelic electronic music; that is quite specifically Jamiroquai’s DNA, and they are the quintessential band to unite the HULA clans. Manifest destiny, indeed.
The cat in the hat is finally back! Do you know where I’m comin’ from? Jamiroquai’s triumphant return to the United States is virtual insanity, your opportunity to scratch the bucket list proper. The Automaton tour has been one scorcher after the next. Who knows if they will ever come back to this corner of the earth again? It’s been thirteen long-ass years of drifting along, so we can only implore you to use the force, shake it on, and come out to the funktion! Coachella. The Bay. The City. HULA! We’ll see you on the dance floor, with canned heat in our heels!
Special Thanks to @JamiroFan2000 and Jamiroquai-The Jamily