Of all the impassioned encomiums delivered to Nile Rodgers during Chic‘s set at the bandleader’s inaugural FOLD Festival Tuesday night in Riverhead, NY, Pharrell Williams‘ words were the most precise.
“This man has been on fire since before I was born. The creativity burned that cancer out of his body,” Pharrell told the crowd, referring to Rodgers’ 2010 prostate cancer survival. “Thank you for your tremendous genius contribution that’s moved and rocked so many generations. Anything you ever need from me in the future, you don’t have to ask. You just have to tell me.”
Williams, who first collaborated with Rodgers on Daft Punk’s 2013 mega-hit “Get Lucky,” appeared to perform a mini medley of “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky” and “Happy.” But his spoken words rang truer. Since his first hit — 1977’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” with Chic — Rodgers has personified funk and disco music, falling in and out of favor throughout the years alongside his genres. In the past few years, music has seen a Rodgerssance, with everyone from Duran Duran to Disclosure to Adam Lambert recruiting him for session and production work.
How to represent so many generations and styles here at Martha Clara Vineyards was the big question. During the 90-minute set, Rodgers answered by ceding the stage to numerous special guests and performing a trove of greatest hits he produced and recorded for both Chic and other artists.
After performing three of Chic’s biggest tracks — “Everybody Dance,” “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “I Want Your Love” — the nine-piece band dug into a medley of Rodgers’ key songs penned for others. “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” both from Diana Ross’s 1980 album Diana, featured twinkling synths, with Rodgers and his trademark Hitmaker guitar occasionally dropping out during the latter to showcase singer Folami’s sultry coos. Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family” followed, with Rodgers taking a rare solo on “Family” that focused more on complementing the rhythm than flashy histrionics.
This lack of flash has dominated Rodgers’ work for decades and was clearly evident Tuesday night. Rodgers’ ethos has always been putting the artist first, placing himself in the background and happily ceding the spotlight to Madonna, Duran Duran and David Bowie, among countless others.
Chic’s live show is no different. For special guests Pharrell and British pop singer Paloma Faith, Rodgers played second fiddle, staying as far to the side of the stage as possible so the crowd could focus on the featured perfomers. The show’s breadth of guests reflected Rodgers’ production diversity, with Rodgers acting as a musical Zelig able to adapt to each artist.
It was only during Keith Urban‘s appearance with Chic — the most well-received of the night — that Rodgers made his way to center stage to jam with the country superstar. “I had Keith Urban withdrawal,” Rodgers told the crowd about going home the first night after recording with him.
The highlight of Urban’s five-song set, which included appropriately titled tracks “Long Hot Summer” and “‘Til Summer Comes Around,” was 2002’s “Somebody Like You.” In the hands of Rodgers, the four-minute country-pop song became a 15-minute blues jam, with Rodgers and Urban each stretching out and noodling before engaging in a riveting, soulful call-and-response.
It was a far cry from Rodgers’ most famous disco productions, with the Chic chief busting out a dirty Texas-style roadhouse-blues solo recalling his lesser-known work with Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on 1990’s Family Style. Urban proved his post-country bona fides to a welcoming crowd, throwing in snippets of sprawling prog and a nod to White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
At the end of the set, bassist Jerry Barnes launched into the ubiquitous bass line for “Good Times,” (one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time). As the stage began to flood with fans — mostly children — that danced around the band, Rodgers began to rap the first verse to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which sampled the track. It’s one of Rodgers’ most famous songs, but also a nod to his influence, one that’s incalculable on pop music yet remains oddly underrecognized and underrated.
The two-day FOLD festival, which also featured Beck, Duran Duran, Q-Tip, Janelle Monae, Chaka Khan and Grandmaster Melle Mel, felt like a correction of sorts, reasserting Rodgers’ place in the pop-music firmament. When Rodgers announced that the festival would return next year as a three-day concert, one got the sense that Rodgers’ best work may be in front of him.