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We are family, too: (l-r) Chic’s Rodgers, Sharp and Wagner. Photo: Chris Shields

Disco Delight
By Shawn Stone

Nile Rodgers and Chic, the Commitments
Riverfront Park at the Corning Preserve, Aug. 9

It was humid, and then it rained. This could pretty much describe any random afternoon of the last few weeks, but specifically refers to last Saturday, and GE’s Riverfest at Albany’s Corning Preserve. There were the usual food-beer-blooming-onion vendors, some promotional booths manned by happy GE employees, an Esther Williams-style aquacade on the Hudson, and music in the new Riverfront Park amphitheater. The performers included the Radio Disney posse led by local heroine Nikki Cleary, followed by the Decadent Royals and Toby Foyeh & Orchestra Africa; the Commitments, and headliners Nile Rodgers and Chic, took over as evening descended.

Let’s skip the preliminaries: Chic were terrific. They rocked. The sizable audience that stuck around through the rain packed the area in front of the stage, dancing and swaying to the beat. There were even hardcore Chic fans from back in the day, shouting out their faves. Nile Rodgers may be the only original member left (Rodgers’ cofounder and cowriter, bassist Bernard Edwards, died a few years ago), but he has assembled an enormously talented band who are as good as (or better than) any group I’ve seen lately, old or new, national or local.

They radiated positive vibes. This was evident even during the sound check: Various band members laughed and chatted with each other and the roadies, seeming (despite the killer humidity) genuinely happy to be on stage, in Albany. Bassist Jerry Barnes didn’t just stand there and plunk his ax; he jammed for a good long while, to the delight of the crowd. It was a wonderful shock to discover that the band responsible for “Good Times” are exactly what they purport to be. (Or perhaps I’ve just been seeing too many dark, mopey 20-something noise-rock bands.)

Chic opened with “Le Freak,” and the boogying began. The 10-piece group were incredibly cohesive and funky: two percussionists, two keyboardists, two singers, a two-man horn section (tenor sax and trumpet), bassist Barnes and Rodgers on guitar. The arrangements had every instrument contributing to the rhythm; Rodgers’ tight rhythm-guitar playing was as much a rhythmic anchor as the bass.

Chic were also musical democracy in action. “At Last I’m Free” and “My Forbidden Lover” gave longtime lead singer Sylver Logan Sharp the opportunity to show off her smooth, old-school soul, while “I’m Coming Out” let newcomer Jessica Wagner tear into the Rodgers- and Edwards-penned Diana Ross hit in the contemporary R&B style. Reedman Bill Holloman, bassist Barnes and the rest of the group each had their turn in the spotlight.

The continual parade of hits, recorded originally by Chic (“Dance Dance Dance,” “I Need Your Love”) and other artists (“We Are Family,” “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” “Upside Down”) reaffirmed just how influential Rodgers and Edwards have been. (It also neatly coincided with the real parade of lighted boats passing behind the band, on the river.) Of course, they saved “Good Times” for last. Even the folks standing in the grass—by this time, it was raining—started dancing. Rodgers even rapped (quite convincingly, too) the beginning of “Rapper’s Delight,” not-so-subtly reminding everyone from whence the track for the groundbreaking hiphop song was stolen. When Sharp asked if folks would like to have Chic back next year, the reaction was enthusiastic and well-earned.

The Commitments, alas, were thoroughly underwhelming. The film’s novelty—poor, potty-mouthed Irish kids singing rhythm & blues—has worn off. Only two members of the current combo are left from the film’s lineup, and neither of them, unfortunately, is Andrew Strong. Strong (who played the obnoxious Deco) put the film over with his powerhouse singing, and raised the Commitments above the level of cover band; Saturday afternoon, as they ground their way through “Mustang Sally,” “Hard to Handle,” and, most painfully, “Try a Little Tenderness,” they weren’t even a first-rate cover band.

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