I hate grandstanders who don't deliver. You know the type: the band leader who's a little too flamboyant for his own good given his contributions to whatever it is about the band that gets the fans and the critics in heat. With an artist like that, it's all fun and games, until he has to perform live. Jay Kay, generally accepted as the mastermind behind Jamiroquai, is a grandstander. I suspected him right after reading the liner notes to Emergency on Planet Earth, the full album that introduced the British band to American acid-jazz fans. It was one of those stream-of-consciousness numbers about the world going to hell in a handbasket at the speed of light; way too precocious to take seriously, and far too indulgent to be representative of the band's principal musicians: Stuart Zender on bass, Toby Smith on keyboards, Wallis Buchanan on didgeridoo, Derrick McKenzie on drums.
Oh yeah, Kay was suspect. But the music and lyrics on the disc were thoughtful, imaginatively arranged, and better executed than most of what was passing for nouveau jazz in the States at the time. And then there were the endorsements from Brand New Heavies' Andrew Levy and Simon Bartholomew, both of whom contributed to the recording. But with or without the BNH seal of approval, on Emergency, Jamiroquai had managed a tremendously successful synthesis of James Brown-inspired horn riffs, in-the-pocket rhythms, turntable techniques, and golden-toned vocals that referenced the black soul traditions of the '70s and early '80s. If the band wasn't English and mostly white, you'd have thought Black Power music a la War, the Isley Brothers, and Earth, Wind & Fire had suddenly fallen back into vogue. Adding to the revolutionary energy of Emergency were simple but affecting lyrics about empowerment, introspection, and change. It's supposed to remind us of the artists who did it first and best -- the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, James Brown, Sly Stone -- but works just as well for listeners who missed the musical revolution the first time around.
Return of the Space Cowboy and Travelling Without Moving, the two albums that followed Emergency, are successful, but less earth-shattering. Cowboy, released a year after Jamiroquai's debut in 1993, experiments more with the tropes of psychedelia and the cosmos, as if Kay (and the band) had grown a little weary of looking at the Earth from the ground. And Travelling, released at the end of '96, continues the journey "out there." Only this time, the "out there" that Jay (and the band) seemed most preoccupied with was cyberspace. To be completely honest, if Jamiroquai had turned up Jan. 27 and only played numbers from the latest, Travelling Without Moving, the crowd at Bimbo's 365 Club would probably have been just as satisfied. But Jay and company performed a 14-tune set that wound back and forth over the three albums. And Jay, as I feared, grandstanded his way through the entire affair, tossing off his English accent for a believable hillbilly drawl, pitching fruit into the audience during the encore, and shimmying his near-rhythmless corduroy-covered behind all around the stage. He's the voice of Jamiroquai and the band's personality, too. Which was too bad, because the rest of the gang on stage -- in total, a nine-piece band that included a West African percussionist and an incredible horn section -- were the glue that held the night together.
Still, song after song, Jamiroquai as a unit put its heart into pleasing the crowd. The set opened appropriately with the now classic "Hooked Up." "I'm so glad I got ya hooked up on my drug/ Everybody dance to the music," Kay crooned. It was a sly wink to the fact that the show sold out weeks before, and that a sizable crowd outside Bimbo's had been turned away. The rendition was tight -- almost too tight. Even while gyrating around the stage, Kay and the band weren't so much performing as parroting the original album recording. After jamming through versions of "Emergency on Planet Earth" (the single, not the album), "Return of the Space Cowboy" (likewise), and the second track off of Travelling, "Cosmic Girl," Buchanan took center stage with his didgeridoo (an aboriginal instrument also known as a Yiddaki), launching into an eerie, five-minute solo. If you've never heard a Yiddaki, there's no easy way to describe it. Imagine a hollowed tree limb about the size of a bassoon. If you have the lung capacity to push air through it, you can approximate the sound of a foghorn pretty easily. Buchanan can make it do even weirder things, and patched into Bimbo's sound system, he was able to fill the entire performance space with the deep, organically derived bass.
Buchanan's contribution alone could have stood as a separate performance. But positioned at the midway point of the set, it served more as a reminder that what we were seeing the least from Jamiroquai as a unit was flexibility, experimentation, and improvisation. These guys came to play a set of music that would hit not because of what they had done that night, but because their fans knew most if not all of the songs -- right down to the breaks. I like a good cover as much as the next guy, but let's not forget about the spontaneity of performance.