By Sam Bleazard
“Got any samples you ain’t usin’?” This is what I imagine Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk asked when they first got together with CHIC’s Nile Rodgers to write the dance anthem “Get Lucky”. “He’s on stage now…”, so read the text from friends inside the concert at approx ten past eight, as I was making the most of an over-priced box of fish and chips inside the bowels of the O2.I shimmied (ok waddled) down an alley-way of eateries, to her smaller sister venue the IndigO2, to find a merry throng surrounding the stage to bop to ‘70s disco classic “Everybody Dance”, complete with audience participation – “Doodoo-doo, clap your hands, clap your hands.” Onstage and clearly visible, is a man in a white suit, white slip on shoes, with locked hair under a white beret, wearing shades and smiling the gap-toothed smile of a funk-star who got the cream.
And for the next two hours the feel-good factor barely lets up, and not only because the music was so well played, thought out and well put together, this is essentially a celebration of one man’s musical force of personality. We sashay through several more floor filling anthems, including “Dance, Dance, Dance”, which can’t be considered complete without the response of, “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah”, and an extended version of “I Want Your Love” which flashes by while we’re still sampling the intro.
Although not the original CHIC line-up (song-writer, partner and bass buddy Bernard Edwards passed away in the 90s), this barely seems to matter as vocalists and percussionists alike are drilled by the master producer and arranger of four decades of the richest and most sampled pop music of all time. With Bernard Edwards Nile Rodgers co-founded CHIC, not only spawning the most credible music of the disco era – but also being inspired by adversity – the pair were famously turned away from legendary New York hotspot studio 54 (supposedly having been invited down there by Grace Jones), so they wrote the funk refrain “aaaaaaah F*** off” by way of response, later renamed “Le Freak” (‘c’est CHIC’). As important as their own group’s contributions were, their heavyweight production credits were as significant, as they breathed serious life (and credibility) into the careers of Sister Sledge (‘We are family’), Madonna (‘Like a Virgin’), David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’), Diana Ross (‘Upside Down’), Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams (‘Get Lucky’), the B52s (‘Cosmic Thing’) – in fact it’s probably easier to list who Nile Rodgers hasn’t worked with in the popular sphere.
And he plays most of the songs he’s ever worked on in this show. In the hands of less sophisticated mortals this could easily have sounded like a tribute act, but as bandleader and impresario, Nile hosts us at his own private party. And to stop a group of disparate song styles and genres sounding like they’ve being thrown together, we are invited in to his personal and pop history to share stories about where he was and how the songs came into being, (inevitably due to excess there are some he simply can’t remember writing), but also what their significance is now. One of the most touching moments of the night comes when he explains that the recent loss of his guitar technician to cancer has meant that whenever the band play Sister Sledge’s “Thinking of you”, he now dedicates it to him (as he has done during the last few years for his much missed song-writing partner Bernard Edwards from CHIC).
In fact every tale seems heartfelt, and in explaining that he almost lost his own life to cancer three and half years ago, it’s no wonder the man who co-wrote “Get lucky” feels (and looks) so glad to be alive, just to be standing there. His guitar playing has lost none of its funk-filled potency either and is a lesson in rhythm playing to anyone taking up the instrument. Some of the most entertaining parts of the show are when she’s sparring with the bass player in the band – imagine a kind of inter-stellar Status Quo standing back to back, having just beamed down from outer space, and you’re pretty much there.
An encore of the hip-hop defining “Good Times”, with Nile faithfully reproducing the “bang-bang boogie de beat” refrain, really takes the crowd to a higher plane. The party is amplified further when he gets lots of teenagers up onstage to dance with the band – they’re from GoThinkBig.co.uk, a website dedicated to helping young people gain skills through work experience and careers advice. Apparently 100 of these young recruits had been lucky enough to work on remixing a version of Nile’s ‘Le Freak’, and look like they’re having a whale of a time. There’s even, if my eyes don’t deceive me, a cameo by Brit-funk’s own late 70s/early 80s star Leee John from Imagination who joins in the fun on vocals briefly. The proceeds of the gig, as I later find out, went to Nile’s charity We Are Family and the O2s Go Think Big scheme.
The show has seemingly flown by, and as we turn to each other to reflect on this amazing musical force, he re-appears back on to the stage alone. House lights are now up but Nile Rodgers is applauding us, rocking back and forth to a song he wrote (is it Daft Punk? this barely seems to matter), he waves back at everyone in genuine thanks for prolonging his party.
Everybody danced…and Nile just smiled.