Live Music + Gig Reviews

Chaka Khan + ClassiKhan @ Royal Festival Hall, London

14, 23 June 2024

Meltdown 2024’s curator gives two contrasting concerts, bringing together diverse strands from across her storied career 

Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan at the Royal Festival Hall, London (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

The Southbank Centre’s artist-curated Meltdown Festival has, as a tradition, a bookending of the series’ performances with a pair of differing shows by that year’s creator. One might hurtle through a storied career, demonstrating their range, in one show, while the other might pair them with an orchestra, or revisit a classic album in its entirety. Chaka Khan, 2024’s curator, is shorthanded with the sobriquet ‘The Queen Of Funk’, and maybe her statement with her two shows was to note that funk is merely one of many strings to her considerable bow, and at 71 she’s done rather more, across many other genres, than perhaps she’s given credit for.

Khan’s opening Meltdown performance at the Royal Festival Hall celebrated 50 years of a pioneering career with a pack-’em-in concert of her hits, with Trevor Nelson as support act/DJ/hype man. If Nelson’s fulsome praises for our host weren’t enough, the show proper opened with a video montage featuring everyone from Michelle Obama via Joni Mitchell to Grace Jones singing Khan’s praises, spliced with assorted archive performances. If you’d been of the mind that Khan’s signature numbers – the Ashford & Simpson-penned I’m Every Woman and her 1983 hit with Rufus, Ain’t Nobody – were the beginning and the end to her, here was evidence to the contrary before she’d even taken to the stage.

When she does appear, it is as if unchanged by the passing of the years. Quite apart from looking amazing, it’s also quickly clear that her voice is every bit as good as it ever was, even if her words are initially a little lost in a muddy mix beyond her squeaky staccato interjections. She comes backed with a three-piece horn section, keyboards, percussion, bass, drums, three backing singers and a fellow on gizmos who doubles up with a guitar. A fan behind her sends her hair flying in the breeze, reminding of a star from another generation: Beyoncé. While her setlist underlines that there’s more to her storied career than funk, as she notes, she’s definitely going to be doing some Rufus numbers.

Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan at the Royal Festival Hall, London (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

After a very full version of her Number 1 hit I Feel For You, and despite impressively funky musicianship all round, the set begins to feel a little curtailed, with first verses, short versions and introductions running together as a medley of sorts (and leaving scant time for applause). There’s a bit of the Rufus number Earthsong, and some of Prince’s Sweet Thing, prefaced with a sweet tribute to the late Purple One. It’s as though she feels she needs to reference this material, but has no particular urge all these years later to stick with it. Yet there are highlights, especially when the backing singers get going and Khan soars, octaves over them, lifting the mood skywards. In one of the set highlights Daydreamin’ I Remember You, we get to hear her voice unaugmented while she perches on a stool, and it’s something of a revelation.

She is escorted off the stage and dancers take over, grooving to backing tracks for an interminable time (there’s a technical issue which doesn’t help), and when she returns it is to surprisingly cover Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere, a song which appeared on her Best Of album Epiphany back in 1996. It gives gusto to her top notes and, in this arrangement, reveals itself to be gospel-tinged R&B number. What turns out to be the encore continues with – what else? – Ain’t Nobody and I’m Every Woman, which end what’s been an uneven night in pure, unequivocal and empowering joy.

Amongst the Meltdown performances between Khan’s two appearances are a range of artists both established and rising, with a welcome spotlight on women, artists of colour and – courtesy of Khan’s embracing of her gay icon status – assorted LGBTQ+ friendly events, from terrace DJ days hosted by queer nights, through to nonbinary artists on stage. In the established category lie such as Bruce Hornsby, Incognito, Mica Paris, War and Morcheeba, while in the rising we find the likes of Lady Blackbird, Judi Jackson and Reuben James. And Khan’s opening event clashes with L’Amazones d’Afrique in sister venue the Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of the series’ most intriguing bookings.

Chaka Khan at Classikhan

Chaka Khan at Classikhan, Royal Festival Hall, London (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

‘ClassiKhan with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra’, as the closing show is named, is a significantly different proposition. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of her ClassiKhan album, it begins without a support act and rattles through a potted history of vocal jazz standards, allowing Khan to underline her credentials as a fine interpreter of songs across genres while backed by phalanxes of musicians filling every corner of the stage. In the opening show there was reliance on the music accounting for itself, sometimes at the expense of conversational context, but here Khan acts as happy archivist, confidently narrating the origins of the material and detailing why each song matters to her, to often amusing, sometimes touching, and always knowledgeable effect. 

From a suitably showy Hey Big Spender, via Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson’s lovelorn Crazy, to the Shirley Bassey Bond power standards Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, nothing throws Khan, whose octaves-spanning range is in charge throughout. An unexpected highlight is the mid-set ballad Roll Me Through The Rushes, popularised by Bette Midler, but which here sets Khan’s voice soaring to its top end over spine-tingling work from the backing singers. Khan’s short term memory issues, which she speaks of candidly, mean she forgets her friend’s name, and the series title for the Bond movies – “the 007 films”, as she puts it – but there’s so much love in the room for her that these slip-ups are easily indulged. The anecdotes continued thick and fast too – there’s one about her children wanting to turn her into a diamond when she dies, and another musing on her four-year-old grand-daughter unnervingly knowing the words to Big Spender. 

As with the first show, ClassiKhan doesn’t outstay its welcome, clocking in at under 90 minutes, but its absolute highlight happens when curtains at the back of the stage part to reveal a 20-strong gospel choir made up of female and nonbinary artists. They had, we’re told, auditioned for this show and only came together eight weeks ago. “They were the only ones who could hack it,” Khan tells us, to much laughter and applause. “When I work with people like this, I am filled with all the hope in the world.” The superb three backing singers on stage throughout notwithstanding, the choir’s contributions raise the roof, and two standing ovations in short order are their due. As ticker tape falls and a huge mirrorball rotates, dancers appear in the aisles and artists from across Chaka Khan’s Meltdown – the statuesque Mica Paris, towering over Khan, among them – take to the stage for Ain’t Nobody and an astonishing outro of I’m Every Woman. The love in the room for Khan from the audience and from her fellow performers is visceral, empowering, and joyous, and you feel she radiates it right back. As anniversary concerts made up almost entirely of cover versions go, this was surely one for the ages, and a testament to the continuing relevance and ability of the Meltdown series for creating unique musical moments. 

Chaka Khan set list: (Video, Intro), This Is My Night, Do You Love What You Feel, Tell Me Something Good, Medly: I Feel For You, Earthsong (intro), I’m A Woman (With A Backbone), Whatcha Gonna Do For Me, Stay (first verse), Sweet Thing, Thru The Fire (short version), Daydreamin’ I Remember You, Everywhere, You Got The Love, I’m Every Woman Encore: Ain’t Nobody

Chaka Khan, ClassiKhan set list: Teach Me Tonight, Stormy Weather, Hey Big Spender, I’m In The Mood For Love, The Best Is Yet To Come, Roll Me Through The Rushes, Crazy, Through The Fire, I Believe, To Sir With Love, Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever Encore: Ain’t Nobody, I’m Every Woman

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