Nile Rodgers and Chic review – disco springs eternal

Royal Festival Hall, London
The ‘number one producer in the world’ puts on a breathless show packed with colossal hits that has everyone on their feet

Forty years ago, as Nile Rodgers notes during his conversational prelude to the first concert of his Meltdown season, the Disco Sucks movement prematurely curtailed Chic’s run as the US’s most sure-footed hitmakers.

Then again, he adds, it led to an even more successful career as a songwriter and producer, with the albums he worked on collectively selling half a billion copies. Never one for false modesty, he recalls telling Frank Sinatra in 1984 that he was “the number one producer in the world”.

Rodgers drops names as proficiently as he plays guitar and there are so many names to drop: David Bowie, Madonna, Diana Ross, Duran Duran. Yet his unapologetic self-congratulation charms rather than grates. Having weathered cancer, the death of Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards and the vagaries of musical fashion, the 66-year-old has managed to turn the last decade into an epic, well-deserved victory lap.

Rodgers’ current nine-piece Chic, with virtuosic bass player Jerry Barnes filling Edwards’ shoes, have been touring the same show for years now, but then it’s hard to improve on a setlist for which the word “crowd-pleasing” seems like faint praise, as Rodgers moulds his singles and big name productions into a seamless whole. There’s barely a song that isn’t a colossal, enduring hit. They come at a pace that leaves you breathless, one timeless hook flowing into another, with Rodgers’ distinctive guitar sound weaving them together like a flickering silver thread: Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Material Girl, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and the brace of disco anthems he wrote for Sister Sledge, to name just a few.

Virtuosic ... Nile Rodgers and bass player Jerry Barnes.
Virtuosic ... Nile Rodgers and bass player Jerry Barnes. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

Chic were originally conceived as a black Roxy Music: sleek, aspirational, subversive. Schooled in funk and jazz, they were disco’s classiest act, with an unrivalled mastery of grooves, hooks and a hip immunity to kitsch. The politically conscious Rodgers salted his lyrics with clues as to why dancefloor escapism was so necessary: Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and Good Times both referenced the Great Depression as a sly commentary on the US’s mid-70s recession. True, the audience members who throng the stage during Good Times don’t appear to be pondering the economic tribulations of the Carter administration but there’s nothing lightweight about Chic’s defiant brand of hedonism.

The hot weather, the intimacy of the venue and perhaps, the grimness of the world outside conspire to create an atmosphere that’s extraordinary even by Chic’s standards: everybody dances all of the time. The ecstatic mood spills into the afterparty: a recreation of legendary disco epicentre Studio 54 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, complete with trapeze artists, drag queens, roller-skaters, original Studio 54 resident DJs Nicky Siano and John “Jellybean” Benitez, and even the notorious sculpture of the man in the moon sniffing cocaine from a spoon. Like Chic’s set, the pop-up club confirms disco’s status as the most formidable, and resilient, pleasure-delivery system ever conceived by pop music. Rodgers has every reason to celebrate himself.

Forty years on, Disco Sucks is merely a grubby historical footnote but disco springs eternal.

• At the Southbank Centre, London, until 11 August.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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