Photo: Photo by Olycom SPA / Rex Features
By Helen Brown
There’s a theory that our modern word “funk” derives from the old French verb funquier: to give off smoke. But Jamiroquai’s new show is better than just smoking: they’re on funk fire.
I have mixed feelings about the band and their slick-voiced, nerdy-cool front man Jay Kay. They tread a fine line between great, tight, jazzy grooves and forgettably naff disco pop.
I was at university when their first album, Emergency on Planet Earth, came out in 1993. The brief acid jazz scene was well suited to the campus mentality. Jamiroquai had polysyllabic, politically aware lyrics, streetsmart graphics and digeridoos. There were wacky, ethnically inspired hats. Stoners nodded along in darkened rooms and polo necks while disco kids threw shapes in skateboarding sneakers. Every third room boasted a poster of Jay Kay’s buffalo-horned silhouette.
But as we grew up, Jay Kay got embarrassing. The pacifist eco warrior began snapping up sports cars and scrapping with the paparazzi. His arrogance – attractive in a skinny youth – lost appeal as he bopped towards straggly bearded, stately pile-owning middle age. The songs shed their cult cachet on drivetime radio and began to sound alike. Even as worldwide album sales edged toward the 25 million mark, I tuned out.
In fact, I was surprised to learn the band had sold out the 23,000-seater O2 arena – then surprised and delighted to witness them turn the zero-atmosphere of the venue into a giant party within minutes.
There’s something about a good, tight, live funk bass that plugs directly into the musculoskeletal system. It bypasses the brain and twangs the tendons. On stage, 41-year-old Kay danced like an urban teenager who thinks he’s alone with an iPod in an underpass: leaping, spinning and flicking out the fancy footwork while sweat ran out from beneath his trademark purple, feathered head-dress.
The set featured Jamiroquai’s 18-year output from the jazzier soul-heavy Nineties through the disco pop and electro grind of the Noughties. The constant, lyrical theme has been space. So, as the band flew through singles Space Cowboy, Cosmic Girl and the chunky, new guitar-driven Rock Dust Light Star, a mobile of giant planets dangled from the ceiling. The big screen flashed images of lunar landings, sci-fi graphics and finally footage of Kay driving his vintage Ferrari and piloting a helicopter: a boy’s own comic book fantasy.
There’s no deeply personal emotion in these songs, or in Kay’s voice. Much of the material is exhilarating in the moment, forgettable thereafter. But it’s precision- engineered to get you high. And, for two spaced-out hours, Jamiroquai can turn a stadium into a funk-powered starship and leave you feeling weightless.