"You want to have a funky good time?" asked the ever-smiling, dreadlocked man with the guitar. "Me too!"
Coming from anyone else, that would be a rather pat "welcome to our show" sentiment. But this was Nile Rodgers saying it, a man whose fingers are literally all over the past 40 years of popular music. Between his band, Chic — frequently cited among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's most egregious oversights — and his incredible production and songwriting resumé, few individuals on the planet have racked up more credentials to teach the sort of pop history masterclass Rodgers gave the Halifax Jazz Festival on Friday night (July 15).
Had the setlist only been Chic classics like "I Want Your Love," "Dance Dance Dance" and "Le Freak," the show still would have been a summer night dance party to remember. Opening with "Everybody Dance" from Chic's self-titled debut, Rodgers and his lineup's female vocalists — Kimberly Davis and Folami Ankoanda — commanded the stage from note one, with the immensely talented six-piece band behind them locking into each groove with exuberant precision.
But billing the band as "Chic ft. Nile Rodgers," isn't just a statement of its founder's present-day name recognition: it offered permission to play to his astounding pop legacy. Four songs into the show, the band busted out a medley of tracks Rodgers and Chic wrote for the likes of Diana Ross ("I'm Coming Out," "Upside Down") and Sister Sledge ("We Are Family"). As the set went along, it included songs by Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), Duran Duran ("Notorious"), Sheila and B. Devotion ("Spacer") and David Bowie ("Let's Dance") — all written or produced by Rodgers.
With each turn towards a different music era, the energy level in the audience seemed to rise, and the dancing-to-not-dancing ratio dipped deeper in favour of the former. Wandering through the venue, I kept hearing exclamations of excited disbelief. "I'm gonna sing 'I'm Coming Out' with Nile Rodgers!" one woman yelled out loud. A dude rushed past me shouting "David Fucking Bowie!" when the band kicked into "Let's Dance."
Then there was Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," another Rodgers co-write, which may have been the point at which the audience peaked, not to come down until the band left the stage. The crowd wasn't the largest the Jazz Fest had seen all week, but it sure as heck was the most enthusiastic.
Rodgers's best songs often have iconic bass lines (performed ably on Friday night by Jerry Barnes) but it's his guitar playing that's truly unmistakable. All too often rock culture assigns guitar hero status to those who can perform virtuosic solos, ignoring those like Rodgers who do incredible, unreplaceable things with rhythm guitar. His playing exists in some mysterious, physics-defying otherworld in which "loose" and "tight" are not opposites but interlinked ideals, spinning around an ever-shrinking circle. At one point I got as close to the stage as I could, just to see if I could lift some tiny secret of Rodgers's guitar playing. I'm still dumbfounded.
The night ended with dozens of audience members joining the band on-stage for "Good Times" — "my favourite Chic song," as Rodgers described it. It's also perhaps the most well-known, given it's been sampled copiously over the years, most famously in "Rapper's Delight." Rodgers even paid tribute to the breakthrough rap hit by delivering its first verse in the middle of the song.
It wasn't the only moment in the set where hip-hop was heard. Performances of songs like "Chic Cheer" (sampled in Faith Evans's "Love Like This") and Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" (the hook in Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy With It") represented Rodgers' spirit and sound reverberating between eras, unbounded by space and time. How lucky Halifax was to experience that spirit in the here and now.