(Chicago; July 27, 2017) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Nile Rodgers has a heavy burden to bear.
He’s the last remaining member of the original lineup of the disco/funk/R&B band Chic – now formally called CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers – a group whose best years were between 1977 and 1980, essentially the peak and fall of disco as a mainstream music genre.
As such, Rodgers is carrying the torch for a band that last lit up the pop charts with 1979’s “Good Times,” a No. 1 pop and soul smash that is still one of the most venerable jams in modern music history, having been recognized as such by the Rock Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone Magazine, Billboard and several other important industry authorities.
Chic is a band that alternates with Earth Wind & Fire as my favorite all-time group, which is what makes watching them perform live in concert some 40 years after their prime – and with two-thirds of their famed rhythm section, Bernard Edwards (bass) and Tony Thompson (drums), now deceased – one of the most agonizing of duties.
For starters, Chic is at its core a disco band, a fact that founder and cancer survivor Nile Rodgers now handily admits (although at times in the past he and partner Edwards were quick to denounce that pigeonholed approach to categorizing their music). As a disco band, their mission is to accomplish one thing when they perform: get butts out of seats and have people dancing as if no one is watching and their lives depended on it.
In that way, Chic was very successful when it opened for Earth, Wind & Fire on July 26 here at Chicago’s United Center during their joint concert – dubbed “2054 The Tour.” Nile Rodgers with his rhythm guitar led his latest ensemble of musicians through Chic’s biggest hits, including “Good Times,” “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” “Dance, Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Everybody Dance.” And butts were definitely shaking and wiggling as people stood at their seats while clapping and singing along to those familiar disco grooves. Many even gave the old familiar disco chant, “ooo-op, ooo-op” – several times – as the party raged on.
But as far as Chic songs went, that was it. Just those five tunes. The rest was a smattering of huge hits by other artists that Nile Rodgers either co-wrote and/or co-produced, mainly with Edwards (whom he never mentioned once, btw), under the entity The CHIC Organization. They included Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family,” Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (the latter being produced solely by Rodgers in 1983 as Chic was breaking up).
There was also the latter-day hit, “Get Lucky,” the Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams smash on which Nile Rodgers was featured as a special guest in 2013.
All of those were songs worthy of a Chic concert; after all, with the exception of the David Bowie and Daft Punk tunes, these were essentially Chic hits in their original forms – just with different vocalists singing the leads (shhhh, don’t anyone tell Diana Ross that).
I’d even go as far as to say that Chic’s version of “Upside Down” sounded funkier (and better) on this night than any version I’ve heard Ms. Ross sing live (and I’ve seen her do it twice in person).
But diehard Chic fans know there is much more to the band’s repertoire than what they played at this concert. For instance, it would have been nice to see them perform the disco classics “My Forbidden Lover” or “Chic Cheer.” As a reminder, “Chic Cheer” is the mostly instrumental 1978 tune from their second album, a song that formed the sampled melody for Faith Evans’ “Love Like This” 20 years later.
Or, as far as “non-Chic” Chic songs go, it would have been nice to hear Sister Sledge’s “Thinking of You” or “Lost In Music,” both stellar tunes from their platinum We Are Family album, which was produced by Rodgers and Edwards and fully backed by Chic’s vocalists and musicians in 1979.
Alas, those tunes were left out, likely the result of their limited popularity here in the states (both of the Sledge songs were hits abroad). But I get it… as an opening act, the band was likely on a limited clock. Eleven songs were probably all it could squeeze in before Earth, Wind & Fire’s stage transformation was slated to begin – and Rodgers likely had to choose wisely. Given the choice between their lesser hits and the ones he picked, it makes sense why we heard “Let’s Dance” and not Chic’s “Rebels Are We,” for instance.
But song choices – or omissions – weren’t the only issue. Another concern, at least for the audiophile in me, was the way the songs were played.
Every true Chic fan knows that the group’s original style was one of subtlety and sophistication. The band used a minimalist approach to all their hits as well as the songs they produced for others. Back then, the focus was always on their intricate rhythm section, particularly the guitar-and-bass interplay between Rodgers and Edwards, with Thompson keeping the beat using a repetitive drum and cymbals syncopation that was slightly overused, but still the band’s signature nonetheless. This sound was aided by the band’s sparing use of keyboards, playful piano flourishes, well-placed hand claps and sharp strings – oh, those Chic Strings.
Less a factor in those days were blaring horns, long drum solos and even longer, exaggerated vocal runs. In fact, Chic’s original vocalists rarely moved beyond their choppy, staccato style of singing, whether it be verse or chorus (unless they were singing ballads, which were also rare).
Those aspects were what gave Chic its unique vibe that set it apart from other disco acts. They were key ingredients that helped them sell millions of records over a two-year period.
So to see the newer incarnation of Chic’s lead vocalists doing their best Mariah Carey (in her prime) and Christina Aguilera imitations, turning single notes into marathons, was disheartening to the most discerning among fans, or at least to this fan. One of the vocalists, Kimberly Davis, had the notable distinction of having a recent No. 1 song on the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart, but you would have sworn she was auditioning on “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent” with how she handled the mic when given the spotlight.
But I get it… this is 2017, and that’s where we are with R&B and soul vocals these days. Davis’s vocals were a crowd pleaser and she is a product of her generation, where subtlety and nuance are things of the past, replaced by acrobatic vocal turns that grate more than they satiate (where are Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin when you need them?).
All of that said, CHIC fully satisfied the less critical fans out there, those that simply came to see two of their favorite bands from the past – bands whose biggest hits include the words “Dance,” “Freak,” “Boogie” and “Groove” in their titles – so they could shake their asses off.
And with that goal in mind, I’d say CHIC’s mission was accomplished, because the thousands of enthusiastic fans who were in attendance did just that…and “Good Times” were had by most.
And for that alone, I give Nile Rodgers full credit… because someone’s gotta carry the Chic torch, even if it means making slight adjustments to keep up with the times.
But a brother still can reminisce about the old days, can’t he?
Chic’s 2054 Set List (Chicago, IL):
- “Everybody Dance”
- “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)”
- “I Want Your Love”
- “I’m Coming Out” (Diana Ross)
- “Upside Down” (Diana Ross)
- “He’s The Greatest Dancer” (Sister Sledge)
- “We Are Family”
- “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk)
- “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie)
- “Le Freak”
- (Medley) “Good Times”/”Rapper’s Delight” (Sugar Hill Gang)
PS: My article covering Earth, Wind & Fire’s performance will come after seeing them in concert (again) this Saturday at the Classic East with five other bands in New York’s Citi Field. I’ll leave you with this: they kicked ass in Chicago!