Chaka Khan review – queen of funk sounds as majestic as ever

The opening gig by the curator of this year’s Meltdown festival begins in impressively grandstanding style. The lights in the Royal Festival Hall dim, the familiar intro of I Feel For You by rapper Melle Mel booms out, and an introductory film unspools. The cast of faces paying tribute to Chaka Khan is pretty extraordinary: Stevie Wonder, Michelle Obama, Grace Jones and Joni Mitchell appear alongside old clips of Whitney Houston and Prince singing Khan’s praises. And so is the archive footage: dog-eared copies of old albums by Rufus, the funk band she intermittently fronted from 1973 to 1983, are pictured next to images of her performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Ray Charles. It is all evidence of a strikingly varied career.

You hear her before you see her: a frankly extraordinary succession of pitch-perfect extempore wails from offstage precedes her arrival. Then here she is: a diminutive, big-haired figure in sparkling black, alternately complaining about the British weather (a recent rain-drenched festival appearance was “like a horror film”) and joking about her advanced years (age-related memory loss is apparently less of a problem when you’ve lived a life as tumultuous as Chaka Khan’s, because “if I could remember everything I’d done, I’d probably kill myself”).

It has to be said, her performance is a worryingly compelling advert for living a tumultuous life. At 71, Khan is quite astonishingly well-preserved, both physically – she looks incredible – and more importantly, sonically. In a pop world liberally studded with septuagenarian and occasionally octogenarian superstars, we have grown used to quietly making allowances for the passing of time. Or at the very least, appreciating legendary performers who sound markedly different to the way they did on their most famous recordings: everyone’s voice changes with age. Everyone’s, that is, except Khan’s.

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Her voice is as potent as ever – at its best when she leaves her backing singers to carry the hooks of Rufus’s Sweet Thing, or a reggae-tinged cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere, and improvises, with the raw power of her vocals effortlessly slicing through the muddy sound as she does. Indeed there is something almost eerie about how much she sounds like the Chaka Khan of the 70s and 80s, a point underlined after a brief interlude midway through the show in which dancers perform to the accompaniment of a DJ spinning a medley of her classics: Clouds, I Know You, I Live You, Fate (the last of which was sampled on Stardust’s deathless house classic Music Sounds Better With You). While the dancers are still doing their stuff, Khan reappears stage left and seamlessly picks up the vocals: 40 years on, you struggle to spot the difference.

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And as the introductory video suggests, her oeuvre was always more diverse than her celebrated “queen of funk” soubriquet suggests. Over the years, she has balanced the business of igniting dancefloors with jazz, reggae and rock inflections. It means she managed to slip through changing fashions with ease – transitioning into disco then side-stepping the disco backlash – and it’s left her with a catalogue that feels hard to date. Tonight, only I Feel for You and her other big 80s solo hit, This Is My Night, feel rooted in an era. The sharp Stevie Wonder-penned funk of Rufus’s Tell Me Something Good and What’cha Gonna Do For Me’s streamlined take on post-disco dance music alike seem weirdly timeless, like something you might have heard for the first time last week.

She has spoken about slipping into semi-retirement – “I got this rich-ass life, I’ve got great-grandchildren I want to get to know better,” she told an interviewer late last year – which is both understandable, given that it is 50 years since Rufus’s debut album, and also hard to believe. That’s partly because there are still artists queuing up to pay tribute (her forthcoming album sees her working with Sia, and she’s mooted a collaboration with the 23-year-old Willow Smith), but mostly because Chaka Khan seems so vibrant and alive up there: watching her kick up her heels, you struggle to imagine her putting her feet up.

The Guardian