Andy Polaris reviews the opening night of the South Bank Centre’s
26th Meltdown festival, curated by producer, musician and sonic trendsetter Nile Rodgers, tonight starring himself and his legendary disco-funk band Chic who led the dance-floor renaissance of the 1970s
Last night was incredibly the first time I have seen Nile Rodgers live (envying the gumption of a friend who saw their debut as a teenager at Hammersmith Odeon in 79 with bass hero Bernard Edwards in the original line-up.) For nearly two hours his band blew me away with one surprise after another in an epic reminder of the power soul dance-music achieved during the 1970s. And from the outset a joyous full house rose to dance away one relentlessly rhythmic night.
The six-piece band were on fire with the funk and particular praise goes to the light-footed Jerry Barnes on bass whose fluid skills elevated the proceedings and dazzled with some intricate guitar arrangements alongside Rodgers on lead. In tandem they relished displaying their sheer technique as a pair of virtuosos who know the songs upside down and inside out. The relative intimacy of the Royal Festival Hall was perfect for this party, featured vocalists Kimberly Davis and Folami who looked resplendent in silver sequinned dresses and similar classic retro hairstyles, shimmying and singing with soul power and wattage, crisply delivering those lyrics we have sung along to over decades.
The South Bank’s annual Meltdown festival is easily one of London’s most anticipated events, an eclectic mix of artists curated each year by a respected musical hero. Past curators have included Bowie, Patti Smith, Lee Scratch Perry, Robert Smith and Massive Attack.
Nile Rodgers is a titan in the music business as co-founder of the legendary group Chic who put branding and style at the centre of their image, delivering and dominating the mid-Seventies with irresistible disco dance-floor anthems. More hooks than a prize fighter! Everybody Dance was a mantra whenever their songs blasted out of the radio or the speakers of any discotheque around the world. Chic’s songs have sophisticated arrangements, are contagious, sexy and most importantly fun and it’s no coincidence that one of their most popular (and sampled) hits is Good Times.
Rodgers’ other successful hat as songwriter and producer has almost overshadowed his own band, by collaborating with artists whose songs have racked up cumulative sales estimated at 75 million in the singles market and half a billion in albums. As one of the world’s most famous and talented guns for hire, his guitar skills have embellished some stellar performances. Bowie’s biggest selling album Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Duran Duran’s Notorious were just a few of the blockbusters from the Eighties. He also wrote and produced Diana Ross, the fantastic and seriously underrated Sister Sledge, as well as one of my favourite singles of that era Sheila B Devotion’s Spacer which is a classic sugary Euro disco delight which most of today’s lip-gloss millennial divas have never bettered. (The rhythmic breakdown on the 12-inch is irresistible and I always return the needle to it, one hearing never being enough.) His solo album Adventures In the Land of the Good Groove 1983 was under-appreciated and I really would love to hear live some of those tracks like Rock Bottom and Yum Yum.
Before the band performed, Nile Rodgers strolled on stage for a 50-minute chat plus Q&A. He read an introduction, freely admitting drug-addled memory was distinctly different from real memory, as he recounted his illustrious career which started off with short lived band New York City, scoring the hit single I’m Doin’ Fine Now in the early Seventies when he found himself stranded in London after his luggage and passport were stolen. A girlfriend led to a chance encounter at a Roxy Music show: the British band’s stylish turn-out proved an eye-opener and prompted Rodgers to tell Bernard Edwards that their band needed to become the black version of Roxy Music. The European influence of couture suits and sophistication led his band to call their second album C’est Chic. Two of its numbers, Savoir Faire and Le Freak, created a pleasure seeker soundtrack which embodied the collision of beautiful people, celebrity and fashion that defined New York’s Studio54 disco at its zenith.
He wears the finest clothes, the best designers, heaven knows
Ooh, from his head down to his toes,
Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci, he looks like a still.
That man is dressed to kill.
– The Greatest Dancer, Sister Sledge 1979
In one extraordinary sequence he revealed the genesis of his collaboration with David Bowie on Let’s Dance. It was thrilling to listen to a rare recording few people have ever heard as the track was transformed from an almost twee throwaway song into the rhythmic funky stomper that it became. During the first take in the studio, we heard Nile introducing David to his arrangement and Bowie experimenting with melodies and phrasing while Nile carefully coaxed him by explaining the number’s metamorphosis. We listened as David gradually grew more excited, climaxing in obvious satisfaction when he finally “got it” – this the single that would become his biggest hit! The whole episode provided a revealing insight into how Nile works as both a guitarist and a producer and was a rare treat for Bowie fans in the audience.
The set reflected this part of the Rodgers career and we heard generous slices of that hit factory with Madonna’s Like A Virgin & Material Girl / Sheila B’s Spacer / Carly Simon’s Why / Duran Duran’s Notorious / Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer, Thinking of You (dedicated to Bernard), We Are Family and Lost In Music / Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out & Upside Down. Recent successes with Daft Punk and Pharrell, Get Lucky, and a monster hit for French group Modjo’s Lady (sampled from Soup For One) kept the momentum blazing.
An uplifting muscular funk workout of Let’s Dance with commanding vocals by drummer Ralph Rolle brought the evening to a climax and packed an emotional punch, followed by Good Times when Nile rapped the classic lyrics to Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang and an assortment of revellers were invited on stage for dancing with the stars.
Rodgers was warm, good-humoured and engaging, his energy and obvious pride in his longevity and achievements should be applauded. Like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, he truly is a living legend who has enriched generations with talent that comes from years of dedication and sacrifice. Theirs is an exclusive club of black excellence that through cultural and social changes has taken us from vinyl to viral with a wealth of sweet memories in between. Meltdown became a disco inferno.
Meltdown 2019, curated by Nile Rodgers, continues at London’s South Bank Centre 3–11 August… featuring Thundercat, Johnny Marr, Kero Kero Bonito, anaïs and Nakhane, Eurythmics Songbook, Kokoroko, SOPHIE, James Murphy, David and Stephen Dewaele