jamiroquai - north coast music festival

Union Park, Chicago, IL, 2 September 2018

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North Coast Music Festival was a festival in need of a win on the closing day of its ninth annual edition at Chicago’s Union Park, after consecutive nights of park-evacuating, holiday weekend-spoiling storms had wiped out Friday and Saturday evenings’ headlining sets. (Miguel, who we were fortunate to see at The Riv in March, was able to pull off a surprise drop-in set at an official Concord Music Hall afterparty.) Luckily, the spending power of the Gen-X demographic would be strong on Sunday, as headliner Jamiroquai, making their first Chicago appearance since 2005, were set to close the fest’s festivities.

Curiously, this would be my first time going to North Coast, though I’ve been a Union Park denizen for many a Pitchfork, and the fest always has someone on their bill I’d love to/still need to see (twice the Chemical Brothers, famously in 2015 D’Angelo’s only local Black Messiah appearance, etc.), but I’d never been compelled enough to book.

But with Jamiroquai, I’d publicly declared I wanted to go when “Cloud 9” from last year’s Automaton comeback LP became one of my favorite choons of ’17.

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So when discount tickets came up on freakin’ Goldstar, how was I not gonna?  After all, I’ve been bopping to Jay Kay’s intermittently corny disco-funk collective’s concoctions ever since “Space Cowboy” was my freshman year favorite at the one deejayed freak-night a week in my country-ass college town.  (Let’s give it a name. It was 1994. Over two decades of shamelessly dancing to a band whose name is a combination of “Jam” and “Iriquois.”) So I sent out a call to my favorite aging hipsters, and lo, my ex-roommate Josh he did harken, and off we romped to the dance music festival.

The slightly different layout at Union Park, to incorporate a DJ stage and the always-entertaining human fishbowl of a silent disco, was easy to adapt to from my Pitchfork experience, but I did need to adjust my uptightness for a less here-for-the-music and more ready-to-party crowd (which did ultimately prove encouragingly low on assholes). I had an odd first hour of wandering, during which I bought Westside hip-hop artist Rico Bandana’s demo (despite the act of buying a musician’s CD on the street having been turned scary by my recent Mr. Robot binge), drank free Johnnie Walker from a promotional lounge (sure, thanks) while watching a guy apologize to the crowd for 15 minutes cuz his laptop had frozen in the heat. Once he booted back up, he proceeded to do stand-up drumming to chopped-up remixes of granny-jam “Mr. Sandman” and that “Josie’s on a vacation far away” song. I was not so sure about my decision to attend at this point.

Luckily, I had investigated a bit further down the bill and had targeted an intriguing LA-by-way-of-Germany R&B artist named NoMBe (say “Noam-BAY”), whose debut LP They Might’ve Even Loved Me came out this February after a few years in the label machinery, and pulls any number of varied-but-familiar groove moves (White Stripes, The xx), but with the tunes to back up the precocious excursioning. In person, his easy and inclusive confidence, as well as solid blues guitar instincts, helped him gather a crowd and reward the early arrivers. I’ll be interested to see if there’s a place in the marketplace for him to break out, but he certainly has the talent and songwriting skills to sustain a place in the industry.

 NoMBe and band.

NoMBe and band.

London’s Jacob Banks then kept things warm with his big gruff gospel-honed baritone barking over electronic soul beats, perfect for movie trailers and ITV promos. Engaging enough, but I was happy to have cut out and hustled Josh over to the smaller stage for Rapsody’s set. Rockin’ with an 8 piece band that included esteemed DJ-producer 9th Wonder (can I get a Little Brother retrospective compiled for me?) the Roc Nation representative showcased pure nuanced MCing, meaning both Mic Control and Move the Crowd, as she highlighted last year’s somehow both underrated and Grammy-nominated LP Laila’s Wisdom with technically skillful, well-written and personally-grounded rhyming and a fearless flow. Even her between-song crowd-empowerment speeches, which I often find come off tone deaf or condescending, were natural and assured, feeling earned from her clear devotion to her craft and her stories of the struggles and doubts on her way to success.  

Moon Taxi, the Nashville jam band turned millennial whoopers, interrupted their Ezra Koenig-fronting-Maroon 5 routine to let their guitarist do Rage Against the Machine karaoke with “Sleep Now in the Fire,” and it was unquestionably the best use of our time they offered.

Mura Masa, the young Guernsey, UK artist whose self-titled LP last year scratched my annual itch for a great-straight-through DJ-producer debut (following on from Disclosure, Jamie XX, and Kaytranada), served as a solid warmup DJ for us, closing out one of the two larger stages as we nestled into place with plenty of our fellow now-out-in-force demographic for Jamiroquai.

Chicago’s last chance to see Jamiroquai was at the Congress in 2005, touring an album called Dynamite made in the wake of their post-Jared Hess boogie bump, and there’ve been major changes for the Londoners since (to say nothing of the massive shifts in the industry itself): the death of founding keyboardist-songwriter Toby Smith, an exit from original label Sony and onto Mercury, who released their only two LPs since, 2010’s expansive, overstuffed Rock Dust Light Star and the back-to-disco Automaton, whose comeback tour was interrupted by a Jay Kay spinal injury.

Healed up and back on the road, Kay and co. hit the stage to the on-brand sci-fi-soundtrack funk of Automaton opener “Shake It On,” and it was clear they weren’t suffering any long-time-no-see shyness or we’re-too-old-for-this shame. Kay was an instant delight, patently ridiculous in his orange Adidas track jacket (bulging at the middle as these things tend to do at 48) and robotically-moving LED light-up headdress helmet, which he wore for the entirety of the set, an advancement in Jamiroquai technology that has made floppy velvety Kangols obsolete.  

“Little L” came second, and though a second-tier hit, had the crowd lustily singing the chorus, making it sound like a classic. The tempo ratcheted up for “The Kids” as the field broke into full-on dance frenzy, though I held my breath when Kay, coming out of a jump-twist-crossover-step shimmy,  had to tiptoe the edge to remain on the stage. This truly was the return of the “Space Cowboy,” but like your funky uncle at the reception, or similarly sportswear-clad boogying Brit Damon Albarn’s recent slate of Gorillaz shows, you can’t really begrudge a guy still going full-bore this far into his career.

Band personnel has largely remained the same since that ‘05 visit, and the team demonstrated a propensity for finding the wacka-chicka pocket, keeping grooves going strong with stalwart drummer Derrick McKenzie maintaining tight and vital rhythms from behind a fully-shielded kit. Songs stretched out in length, and the veteran players did allow a little air in with leisurely between-tune  water breaks. This perhaps led to the excision of their biggest single, the persistently relevant “Virtual Insanity” from the setlist, with Kay registering disappointment that there wasn’t more time to rock than the 90-minute slot, saying “I’m more of a two hours twenty minutes man myself.”

As Josh and I waded to the rear for a beverage break, I got a good look at hundreds of happy faces and loosened hips in a field full of ‘90s relics, one of the biggest and most joyous crowds I’ve been part of for any set I’ve seen at this park, which has included Bjork, Wilco, Lauryn Hill and pre-dead-to-us R. Kelly. Jamiroquai may not have the legitimacy of contemporaries Daft Punk or the reverential cred of LCD Soundsystem, but their suitcase full of big-ass choons places them in my book as worthy of a place in the Dance Music Hall of Fame (should it ever be revived) alongside your Donna Summers and Nile Rodgerses.

 Original-recipe disco was a hybrid evolution of the most ecstatic moments of funk, soul and pop that for a time united demographics in the high-pleasure acquisition of looping serotonin boosts, before house, hip-hop, “electronica,” “EDM,” what have you, developed the methods to replicate a group of proficient musicians with the spin of a wheel and the pushing of buttons. But disco’s spirit of everybody-get-together-let’s-all-get-down remains forever relevant, even in this town that dared threaten to demolish it (no linking to that ignominy here). Jamiroquai’s timeless hooks and extraterrestrial appeal, peaceful but rarely too self-serious, brought a weather and politics-battered late-summer Chicago crowd together for some escapist utopian euphoria, a state that the best disco jams take us. Jay Kay’s band of geezers, wondrously locked-in and cranking out the funk, would seem to be a dying breed, until you recall that they were seen as revivalists upon first appearance in 1993, and here they were headlining 25 years later, not even at Ravinia!

I was glad I and so many other of my getting-creaky but still culturally-snooty age group could get out and cavort with the kids on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, as the rain held off and a Monday recovery day awaited aching joints. In my first time getting around to attending the fest dubbed “Summer's Last Stand,” North Coast Music Festival offered a daytime selection of breaking new dance acts worth the meeting, cannily topped off with the ice cream dessert booking of a nostalgic and not-so-guilty pleasure, as Jamiroquai rewarded its fans’ long wait with a high-spirited celebration of a deep back catalogue.

Fan-recorded full set below:

Jamiroquai Setlist:
Shake It On
Little L
The Kids
Use the Force
Space Cowboy
Alright
(Don't) Give Hate a Chance
High Times
Runaway
Cosmic Girl
Travelling Without Moving
Canned Heat
Love Foolosophy