REVIEW / If you want to get ahead: Jamiroquai are this week's No 1. A true soul sensation or Shakatak with a hat? Phil Johnson watched them in Bristol

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The Independent Culture
'DON'T get so excited girls; I know it's big, but calm yourselves down.' Could singer Jay - who recently took his kit off for the cover of The Face - be talking about his hat? It's certainly a whopper, a huge fur job whose shadow all but obscures his elfin features. Indeed, the crush of female admirers at the front of the stage were lucky to see him at all.

The rest of us, perched up high in the gallery, fighting for space, were fortunate if we could catch a fleeting glimpse of the drummer. In a week when, as Jay told us, Jamiroquai's album had just reached number one, this was the hottest ticket in town and the Lakota in Bristol was packed. The air of exultation was infectious and the group performed with the kind of overbrimming confidence that sudden success brings.

But those who saw them at the same venue six months ago could, like habitues of the Cavern when Beatlemania first hit, cast a curmudgeonly spoiling vote: you really should have seen them then, you know, when they were really hot. . . Then, Jay's closely-miked voice really did make sense of the Stevie Wonder comparisons. Now, he sounded rather tired and flat and the band seemed slacker too, though Jay has an admirably liberal attitude to manning levels, with nine musicians doing the job of five or six: an irregularly employed didgeridoo player was clearly guilty of Spanish practices and the double-decked turntable operative managed to find plenty of spare time to roll cigarettes.

Toby Smith on keyboards is the main contributor to the overall sound, playing museum piece instruments like a Hohner Clavinet and a Fender Rhodes piano, but he is so preoccupied with the antique toggle-switches and knobs that only one hand is free for playing. A horn section and a busy percussionist fatten out the riffs, but if they are to be more than, as some critics have unkindly said, Shakatak with a hat, Jay's singing really needs to shine.

Only once, on a long, improvised, slowish number where Jay repeated the words 'I'll be loving you till the end of time' over and over again, did he fulfil the promise of his earlier appearance. The singles were dispatched fairly summarily and at times it seemed as if the band were in dreamy Glastonbury mode a week early; certainly, there was no sense of urgency in the performance.

As frontperson, though, Jay, even below par, is still a winner. Prowling the apron of the stage like a Siberian sentry, he managed to animate the otherwise fairly muso-like demeanour of the rest of the group into a semblance of the pop heroes they have become.

The more or less unreconstructed jazz-funk that the group puts out is still best represented by its original progenitors, however. At the Jazz Cafe last week, the veteran drummer Norman Connors led his Starship Orchestra (actually a quartet and two vocalists) through some occasionally inspired routines and, in Bristol on Sunday, the Benny Hill of the genre (and Jay's main man), the vibes player Roy Ayers, put Jamiroquai to shame with yet another mammoth set of soul-jazz anthems. Wearing a hankie on his head, satin leggings and a dinner jacket, Ayers is no longer a sartorial challenge to Jay, but in musicianship, Ayers is better by far.