Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On DVD: "Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003"

Like most of the American pop audience, I first became aware of the British group Jamiroquai in 1996, when their mind-bending video for “Virtual Insanity” (from their Traveling Without Moving album) became a breakout MTV hit. The accompanying album was an enjoyable slab of neo-Stevie Wonder R&B/funk/pop, and the group has been worth keeping an eye on ever since; though they’ve misfired occasionally, and never really capitalized on that American success (these days, they’re best known for “Canned Heat,” the song that Napoleon Dynamite dances to), they’ve still produced a steady stream of interesting, danceable music.

Which is why Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003 is something of a disappointment. It’s not a bad concert, by any means, it’s just listless and somewhat underwhelming; the long, improvised renditions often run on considerably longer than they should, and some of the song choices are peculiar (seriously, no “Virtual Insanity”?). Most damaging is the odd instrumentation; for reasons unclear, many of the songs are performed with a proto-heavy metal electric guitar as the primary engine, a choice that is wrong, wrong, wrong. At first, it seems they can’t reproduce their recorded sound on stage, but some songs do so just fine—leaving us to assume that they were experimenting with a modified style that just doesn’t quite click.

And it happens right off the top. Lead vocalist Jay Kay makes rather a half-hearted entrance (wearing an Adidas sweatsuit and a peculiar piece of headgear that’s like a cross between an Indian headdress and a Ginsu knife set) as the set begins with a rocked-out rendition of “Use the Force,” and this viewer’s response was instant confusion—where’s the funk? Where’s the horns? “Canned Heat,” which follows, simply doesn’t sound right without strings, and the electric guitar fill-in on the part is a case of a square peg in a round hole.

Things perk up with “Cosmic Girl,” as the bass-heavy funk sound we’re looking for slowly begins to show its face, while “Little L” is a nice groove with a terrific bass solo. Other highlights include a fantastic performance of “Alright” and a rendition of “Love Foolosophy” that really grooves (even if they don’t match the show-stopping energy of that song’s performance on Live from Abbey Road).

The performance is sidetracked in small ways throughout, however. Jay Kay is an engaging performer, but not terribly good with stage patter; his introductions tend to ramble on and not go much of anywhere. Their performance of “Butterfly” is good, even if the intro isn’t, while “Mr. Moon” gets off to a rocky start after an awkward encounter with a fan who tries to give him a joint. The sheer length of some of the numbers is problematic as well; the show’s 15 songs run a total of 137 minutes, averaging out to almost nine minutes each. Some people like jam bands, but from the evidence here, Jamiroquai isn’t much of a jam band; they have a tendency to ride out the last two or three minutes of song with monotonous repetition. They can occasionally keep the energy going, but not often (I made a legitimate mistake, and not a bad joke, when I jotted down “Traveling Without Ending” instead of “Traveling Without Moving” in my notes).

The heavy guitars work fine on “High Times” (it matches the record, after all), but the rock sound returns later in the show, nearly destroying “Soul Education” (one of my favorite Jamiroquai songs). It’s just as intrusive on “Just Another Story” and the show closer, “Deeper Underground.” In those songs, the instrumentation makes the group sound like a bad bar band. Live at Montreux 2003 is a disc that I wanted, badly, to like, but it’s a problematic special that confuses and disappoints more than it excites.

Jamiroquai has made some great records, and they have a reputation for putting on a great live show. But there’s little evidence of that in Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003, which is burdened by indulgent, endless renditions of songs that frequently diverge too broadly from the group’s signature style. For hardcore fans only.

"Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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