Serenity in the midst of a show-stopping performance of chart-topping hits by Nile Rodgers and Chic
“He’s a lefty…you can tell by the slant of his guitar.”
That’s the first thing I heard as I settled into my seat at the Fox Theater in Oakland for Nile Rodgers and Chic’s performance this past Thursday night.
Oh, interesting, I thought, in italics (obviously), taking into account this observation made by the man seated in the row just behind me. Nile Rodgers is a lefty guitarist! The things you learn at live concerts…
Turns out, of course, this was not in fact true of Rodgers, but instead of Dave Wakeling, the lead singer/guitarist of The English Beat, who were the evening’s opening act. I present this little opening aside to show you, dear reader…all two of you =)…how much I knew about the event, and the performers, going in.
A couple times during his group’s opening set, Wakeling revealed to the audience, which was filling in slowly, that the feature act of that evening something special in store. Wakeling was on hand during Chic’s soundcheck earlier, and it had been more than enough to convince him that they were ready to jam and party.
And party Chic would, running through the gamut of Rodgers’s incredible catalog of №1 hits. In fact, there’s a hilarious introductory video on his website in which Rodgers rattles off “some” of the artists he’s collaborated with, both producing and playing alongside, in a breathless sequence that makes Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire look tame.
It took about twenty seconds of his playing for me to register just special this dude’s talent is. There’s his mastery of the guitar, then the maddeningly talented singers and musicians in the band arrayed around him, but what was most striking was the wondrous simplicity of his guitar playing. This was mastery in its purest vein. Simplicity, arrived at through careful consideration of any and all other possible variations that could have been produced. Then, whittling it down to the perfect distillation. It’s like lyrics: the simpler they seem, the harder you know the artist worked on them, and the more universal they are for the listener.
Little wonder Daft Punk requested Rodgers’s services for their last album, Random Access Memories, whose opening track was titled Give Life Back to Music, a fitting statement as to what the iconic French duo intended to do in response to an industry they’d observed become riddled with sugary, watered-down stuff.
I go to concerts for two reasons: as a sort of pilgrimage/witness-to-greatness of individual performers and groups that have meant so much to me over the years; or to see something that I have no context, or idea, of what to expect. I’m shy and reserved by nature, so this is as let-loose-let’s-get-it-ya-dig as I get. Plus, on the way home from either sort of concert, my creative side gets a-whirring. Favorite songs get played back on repeat, special moments to savor; or something new and exciting that struck me, and that I can’t wait to learn more about.
Rodgers was the latter sort of concert, and I enjoyed delving into his backstory afterward, learning that at the outset of his career, he’d traded in his guitar for a Fender Stratocaster he still uses to this day. It wasn’t the finest instrument available, but that wasn’t the point. He liked the sound it made, and my how it’s served him well since.
Rodgers was an affable host throughout Chic’s set, even as the on-site tech guru struggled at the outset to get the circuitry right for his Fender. Even as he faux-commiserated with the audience about just how long Chic had been on the road for this latest tour. They didn’t let it show, jamming and rocking and getting people moving, until…the time came for Get Lucky.
Few songs have seemed bigger than this collaboration between Rodgers, Daft Punk and Pharrell; few are more successful in drawing out that part in each of us that goes to a concert with the express purpose to boogie. But on Thursday night, Rodgers turned the song on its head, slowing it down at its outset, and prefacing it with a story that has become an integral component of his recent string of live shows.
Eight years ago, Rodgers was diagnosed with a severe, aggressive form of cancer. So much so, his doctor recommended that Rodgers get his affairs in order. And yet…Rodgers fought on. He rode out treatment until he was cancer-free, whereupon one of the first phone calls he received was from a couple of French dudes with a habit of producing mind-bendingly good dance electronic jams.
So Get Lucky immediately took on an added resonance, with so much of Rodgers’s recent journey wrapped up in it. He provided a funky guitar theme, Daft Punk loved it, the rest is history. It made for a serene moment during an otherwise boisterous set, and it was a good reminder of one of the best reasons for attending live shows. You never know how an artist is going to change up a song. It might just become memorable.