Date: September 8, 2018
Venue: Forest Hills Stadium (Queens, New York)
Tour: Automaton Tour 2018
The isolation of America from the global pop/rock music landscape dates back to the mid-90s – when consolidation in terrestrial radio combined with DJs being removed from their playlist programming function led to playlists characterized by sonic homogeneity, a geocentric bias, and an unadulterated ageism. This led to the charts in the US looking quite different from those of international music markets. Furthermore, it meant that there were artists/bands that were popular in every part of the world but were relegated to relative obscurity in the US. Noteworthy examples from the 90s include Robbie Williams, Suede, Take That, The Corrs, and Jamiroquai. Of this list, Take That and The Corrs had brief moments in the US limelight because they charted in the top 40 singles charts with their hit singles “Back For Good” and “Breathless” respectively. Jamiroquai may have not fared as well as these two acts from a singles chart perspective in the US but their uniqueness and monumental success in 1996 due to the breakout music video for “Virtual Insanity” (from the hit album “Travelling without moving”) gave them an audience and made them a commercially viable touring act in the US. Despite having emerged from London’s burgeoning acid-jazz/funk movement of the early 90s, the band’s sound was polished with a pop sensitivity that translated rather well to a mainstream audience. Their transformation from a band to one of pop culture’s most recognizable brands was propelled by the Stevie Wonder-esque voice and flamboyant persona of their magnetic frontman Jay Kay, the “larger than life” hats that become a defining element of Jay Kay’s visual aesthetic, the trademark “Buffalo Man” artwork that featured on their album covers and practically became synonymous with them (almost in the way that superstar Prince’s unpronounceable symbol sign was), and the high-budget music videos that featured eye-popping special effects, luxury cars, exotic locations, and stunning models (e.g. Heidi Klum in “Love Foolosophy”). In fact, for an act that took their music as seriously as they did, they seemed at ease with welcoming the escapist spirit of the music video format. Their inherent quirkiness and superior artistry was seductive. At the end of the 90s, they made the audacious stylistic reinvention from an acid jazz band to an act whose sonic template was an invigorating cocktail of funk and disco soul. The only song from this phase with any mainstream exposure in the US was the hit single “Canned Heat” (thanks to it being featured in the cult-classic film “Napoleon Dynamite”). In fact, nothing by Jamiroquai that was released after this single received any significant promotion in the US. As a result, despite the band riding high in the singles and albums charts in the largest international music markets, they were largely absent in the American mainstream. This might explain why it has been 13 years since the band last performed in the US. Their first American shows this year were in San Francisco and at the Coachella Festival. The band’s performances have been met with rave reviews and the shows have sold out. The show at Forest Hills stadium in Queens (New York) was no exception.
This review would be incomplete without at least a short description of the venue. Forest Hills Stadium is a rather unconventional venue by most standards. It is nestled in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Forest Hills (Queens, New York) and is attached to the West Side Tennis Club – home to the US Open from 1915 to 1920 and then from 1924 to 1977. The word “stadium” in its name is somewhat deceptive. In reality, it is an intimate venue that just happens to be outdoors. Most seats offer a fairly close view of the stage. The downside of the venue is that for those that think they can walk in to the venue quickly and get seated immediately at any time of their choosing will undoubtedly be in for a rude shock. Security takes a significant amount of time. The venue’s aggressive curfew of 10 pm ensures that everything starts and finishes on time. That is a huge bonus that compensates for the inconvenience associated with entering the venue.
At 7 pm, DJ Premier (one half of hip hop duo Gang Starr) opened with a DJ set of popular favorites that got the audience on their feet. It appeared that the songs he chose were by musical greats that met their demise in the recent past. Noteworthy examples of artists that he chose to honor via this selection of songs include Aretha Franklin, Mac Miller, and George Michael. Needless to say, this was one of the better opening acts I have watched in recent years.
At 8 pm, the stage lit up with the pomp and grandeur that one would expect at a Jamiroquai concert. The band members (sans lead singer Jay Kay) entered first. The three female backup singers looked like a blast from the 70s with their glittery sequined tops. To say that they were a visual distraction would be quite the understatement. The magnetic frontman Jay Kay then took to the stage in a yellow and black Adidas track suit jacket, boot-cut jeans, and sneakers. His “lit up” head gear was identical to the one featured on the album cover and music video for “Automaton” – the band’s 2017 album and the premise for the band’s most recent concert tour.
Despite the band being on the road to promote the new album, they seemed to be acutely aware of how their American audience was different from their audience from the rest of the world. 2018 marks the first time in 13 years that Jamiroquai has performed live in the US. Many had traveled across the country to see their musical heroes live in concert at Forest Hills Stadium. Furthermore, Jamiroquai’s last two full-length studio releases “Rock Dust Light Star” and “Automaton” were not released in the US with the same fanfare that they enjoyed overseas (e.g. performances on “X Factor” and “The Voice UK”). The band’s awareness of this reality was reflected in the choice of songs on their setlist. Rather unsurprisingly, the album with the highest representation on the setlist was “Travelling without moving” – their groundbreaking album that sold over a million copies in the US. Five songs from this album featured on the concert setlist. In fact, this extended to a spellbinding performance of the album’s title track – one that was driven by a pulsating bass of the band’s bassist Paul Turner. That being said, staying true to the name of the tour, the band started the night’s 2-hour long dance funkathon with “Shake it on” from their latest album “Automaton”.
Throughout the show, the band performed with a gusto and energy that fans do not typically associate with veteran acts. It was fairly obvious that the band was feeding off the love and energy of the audience. In fact, at several moments in the concert, Jay Kay acknowledged this and appeared truly grateful for the love and enthusiasm despite the band having been on an American hiatus for over a decade. Jay Kay and gang had the audience eating from the palm of their hand. In fact, there were no dull or low-energy moments – which is commendable given that the band played for two hours straight with no breaks. At several moments in the concert, Jay Kay looked like he was practically commandeering the musicians in the way that a conductor of an orchestra would. It is hard to determine whether this was pre-planned or truly organic – but either way, it worked. Despite being a middle-aged man now, Jay Kay flirted with his youthful past via his quirky trademark dance moves which were received with screams and cheers from the audience. Not enough can be said about the vocal competence of the backup singers Elle Cato, Valerie Etienne, and Hazel Fernandes. In fact, it would be fair to say that they eclipsed Jay Kay vocally on tracks such as “Don’t give hate a chance” and “Main Vein”. Last, but not least, these ladies can dance up a storm.
Like any concert, this one had its standout moments – some of which were surprises. The first big surprise was the performance of “Runaway” – the lead single from “High Times” – the greatest hits collection of Jamiroquai. Keyboardist Matt Johnson’s solo section – a musical interpolation NOT featured on the song’s studio original was absolutely mesmerizing. The solo electric guitar interpolation on “Love Foolosophy” morphed the song into something far superior to its original incarnation on the album “A Funk Odyssey”. The extended versions of the hit classics “Space Cowboy” and “Cosmic Girl” could have played through the length of the night and the audience would have still wanted more. The band’s surprise performance of “Emergency on Planet Earth” was a nod to the band’s beginnings (which revolved around their preoccupation with the issues plaguing the world at the time) prior to their international breakthrough (which was characterized more by a hint of self-indulgence). It would have been great if the band had explored this chapter of their career further on the setlist.
The concert ended rather predictably with a performance of the band’s groundbreaking hit “Virtual Insanity”. Customarily, this performance has been a “post-encore” performance but being acutely aware of the venue’s strict curfew, Jay Kay introduced this song by saying “I know we have a hard curfew in a few minutes so I am just going to bust this one out”.
As with any concert, this one had a couple of missed opportunities. Given that the band had large screens at their disposal on stage, they really ought to have screened the music videos for “Cosmic Girl” and “Alright” while performing these songs. It would have served as a reminder of the band’s significance in the 90s chapter of the MTV’s heyday. “Summer Girl”, one of the band’s more recent singles was conspicuous by its absence on the setlist. This song is a Jamiroquai essential and the highlight of “Automaton” – the band’s latest album. The inclusion of this song in the setlist would have undoubtedly fueled the curiosity of those that look at Jamiroquai as being an act of yesteryear. These are minor issues given that this concert was very much an embodiment of artistic perfection.
This review would not be complete without a comment on the sheer diversity of the audience at Forest Hills Stadium. It is impossible to categorize this audience into a specific demographic. This diversity stands as a testament to the fact that great music transcends generational and cultural boundaries. Watching the audience cheer and sing along to songs (which were huge hits overseas but not promoted in the US) such as “Little L”, “Love Foolosophy” and “Runaway” put a smile on my face. It makes me hopeful that American audiences are not as musically uni-dimensional as the mainstream media makes them out to be. Furthermore, they do have the curiosity to look beyond the limited pop/rock music landscape of the US. This is very encouraging.
In the age of homogeneity in terrestrial radio’s programming, and algorithmic curation for those that are not tied to terrestrial radio, it is unlikely that an act that shares sonic roots with Jamiroquai could become a similar potent force in the music industry. Jamiroquai’s meteoric rise in the commercial mainstream required the gatekeepers at terrestrial radio overseas to have a broader view of what could be commercially viable. On the other hand, algorithmic curation requires a band to share similarities with most of what dominates the pop music landscape. Given that Jamiroquai has never sounded anything like what dominated pop’s mainstream, they would also not feature in algorithmically curated playlists of the type that an entity such as Spotify would create for its listeners. I personally am glad that the band found its chemistry in an era that predates the digital music revolution. That timing alone could have been the deciding factor between relative obscurity and global stardom. Fortunately, Jamiroquai became the beneficiary of the latter. This evening’s concert at the Forest Hills stadium arena is a reminder of that fact – and pop music aficionados are most definitely better off for it.
STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 STARS
In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of Jamiroquai (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. We don’t restrict ourselves solely to the singles. We also feature “rare for radio” Jamiroquai songs such as “Starchild” and “Smile“. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Tears For Fears, Suede, The Corrs, Dubstar, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
Give us a spin when you get a chance.
We just might become your alternative of choice!