A case could very easily be made for George Clinton as an anarchistic innovator who has played a larger role than he gets credit for in shaping a genre of music which probably defines the mainstream now more than any other.
By Matt Hanson
George Clinton’s status as living legend is unarguable. At the ripe old age of 72, the man can be said to have successfully written, sung, orchestrated, masterminded, and delivered up the funk for far longer than I’ve been alive.
We’re lucky George Clinton is still kicking. Being the guiding force alternating between two different bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, let alone orchestrating both at the same time, would pretty much take the stuffing out of anyone. To say nothing of the comprehensive vision at work here: the raucous live shows, outlandish costumes, sci-fi, alternative mythologies, flamboyant social criticism, a Rolodex of stage names and on and on. It’s enough to hang a reputation on for a lifetime, and it doesn’t even stop there. A case could very easily be made for George Clinton as an anarchistic innovator who has played a larger role than he gets credit for in shaping a genre of music which probably defines the mainstream now more than any other.
One of the reasons why Clinton is still relevant, aside from his extensive catalogue and critical canonization, is precisely because he had the foresight and the democratic spirit to take a famously laissez faire attitude towards other artists’ sampling his music light years before it was cool. People might know his melodies and rhythms without ever having heard the man. I know I first encountered the chorus of “Atomic Dog” without realizing it in the middle of one of Snoop Dogg’s breakthrough hits back when I was in middle school, peering into the Pandora’s Box of MTV at my friend’s house. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I discovered that the infectious synthesizer hook from De La Soul’s “Me Myself And I” was a P-Funk sample of “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” If you think about it, it’s a brilliant choice – promoting your music through other artists’ reimagining of it was a visionary move way before the internet and Pro Tools made it commonplace and imitation, especially in the world of music, became the sincerest form of flattery.
When I found out he was coming to the House of Blues on March 7th, I had to come and pay my respects to the man occasionally known as Dr. Funkenstein. I needed to make the mothership connection. I heard some discouraging words from some friends of mine who had seen him before and had come away slightly disappointed. They said his voice was shot, a likely enough story given the years of touring and obsessive experimentation. This may well have been true, but I figured Parliament Funkadelic was nothing if not well-stocked with musicians and vocalists and this wouldn’t be a problem.
It wasn’t. The show was opened in grand style by the Nephrok! All Stars, who are the best local Rn’B group I’ve seen yet. The eponymous Neph, Newton’s own, sporting an impressive pompadour and shining with sweat, proclaimed that opening for P-Funk to be “a dream come true.” He sang like he meant it, too. The band was in the pocket and burned through the set list with conviction and soul to spare. I’d seen Neph rock the house in some interesting small venues before and he definitely knew how to fill the much larger space, keeping the rhythm and pace of the songs tight and infectious, the way it oughtta be.
Clinton himself surprised a few of us by emerging from the wings shorn of his trademark multicolored dreads and iconic sci-fi superhero robe ensemble, sporting instead a loose brown double breasted suit and natty fedora. He ambled up the stage behind the backing singers with a gleeful look on his face, bobbing his head in appreciation of the applause and taking a seat on a large stool in center stage, where he spent most of the show conducting the band, the personnel of which changed virtually every song. By the time the dozen or so members of P-Funk finished tuning, warming up with a couple Parliament numbers, we members of the crowd had successfully joined the mothership. Throughout a particularly buoyant version of “Aqua Boogie (A psychoalphadiscobetabioafrodoloop)” the crowd was tongue-twisting along, portmanteau words be damned.
It was interesting to see how Clinton navigated the show between both the earthy Rn’B groove of the Parliament material (specifically “P Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up”) and the spacey psychedelic theatricality of the Funkadelic stuff, the often-sampled keyboard riff from “(Not Just) Knee Deep” given an interesting spin on guitar and sax, represented by Darryl Dixon, who was more than happy to throw some Coltrane in his constant riffing. “Maggot Brain” was the transition piece, the interlude between the first 95 minutes or so and the equally long second act. I love this particular song, though the anguished, Hendrixian wailing means that I can usually only handle so much of it at once. Ricardo “Ricky” Rouse’s wah pedal work gave the tune an abstract, mournful cadence quality that added some interesting wistfulness to the performance.
To be honest, it was hard to keep track of each of the musicians and their various solo performances. The lineup was refreshed nearly every other song and people switched instruments enough to make it difficult to give specific credit. It might be less a matter of democratic principle than sheer survival. The friends I was with commented that this was already twice the length of set time we’d expected, which was really quite impressive given the age range of the band. The songs were consistently stretched too, not as time-killing filler but as a loosely defined improvisational space that used some of the already flexible contours of tunes such as “Night of the Thumpasaurus Peoples” and “Music for My Mother” as a point of reference. Different snippets of songs and the voiceovers from “Mothership Connection” mingled with some ripping sax solos and guitar attack.
The second set is when things began to pick up a momentum of their own. Towards the latter half of the show, in one of those curious moments that can only really happen in concerts, a little bit of what we might define as “the funk” – and, remember we were there because we want the funk, we need the funk, gotta have that funk – truly took place. Now, I’ve never been much of a dancer. This is not because of a lack of devotion to the groove, mind you, but more because I am large and gangly and clumsy and when in full gitdown mode resemble nothing so much as a marionette held by a person standing on a block of ice who is being tickled to death. But I sure am glad to sort of nondescriptly bop along while living vicariously through my fellow concertgoers, all of whom seemed appropriately committed to getting funked up.
So during a particularly stretched-out and raucous version of “Atomic Dog” I was rather relieved to see a some enthusiastic young women from the audience take the stage, grinning profusely and ready, willing and able to commence to get funky. Each seemed more or less the same age and demographic: mid-twenties, white, voluptuously dressed, and seemingly perfectly delighted to be onstage backed up by the amused and essentially nonchalant P-Funk crew. So far, so good. The youth of America – or Boston, anyway – all gotten up to git down. The crowd – a pale tide of white people, as it happened, boys and girls in roughly equal measure – dug this whole situation, of course, and cheered its approval.
And then, in a moment that probably lasted no more than a couple minutes at most, there occurred a rather notorious (and apparently ubiquitous) dance move properly known as a twerk. All I can say is, I neither particularly know nor care anything about Miley Cyrus, but I was made aware of this move and her controversial deployment of it last year. From what I understand, this telltale twerk was an issue that merited national attention because it put a Disneyfied, barely-legal actor/singer on flagrant sexual display and/or exploited black urban dance culture by expropriating it. The fact that the oleaginous Robin “I Know You Want It” Thicke was the recipient of the twerk heard round the world, the twerk-ee if you will, probably didn’t help matters, either.
Well, in this case it was a spontaneous act of exuberance which started off gingerly in a sort of ironic, inside-joke kind of way. This went over pretty well all those present on both sides of the stage and the twerker in question decided to add a couple more for good measure. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that this booty shake involved a seated, African-American septuagenarian who amiably returned the favor by lifting his leg and playfully humping the twerker for a bit in response. Considering the song title, I’ll chalk up the fact that he lifted his leg as he did it to a visual pun and leave it at that. The reason why I mention this is not only to avoid the risk of boredom in a setlist recitation but because the moment, brief and frivolous as it was, gave me pause.
If you think about it, it is an interesting set of circumstances. I can appreciate a critique that could frame this in terms of misogyny or even rape culture, but I’m not entirely sure why it‘s necessary. It’s hard to describe without over-analyzing it; it was odd without being offensive, obviously done in a spirit of levity yet carries with it a host of associations. If the same thing took place, say, forty years ago, I would venture to guess it might have been a little more subversive than it was last Friday. If this were sixty years ago it could have set off a small riot. I think one could call this progress. Parliament Funkadelic has always been a sex-positive crew, to put it mildly, and I see no reason why this can’t be categorized under good clean fun.
Making basic pleasures – sex, dance, costume, communal participation – not only fun but also damn near utopian has been Parliament‘s stock in trade for most of their career. After all, it’s all about inclusiveness – one nation under a groove, come one come all, gathered on the mothership in the name of tearing the roof off the sucker. The several women in the band each had a showcase of their own, leading songs and keeping up the pace throughout as much as anyone else. At one point, Clinton invited his granddaughter to come to the stage and command it she did – more on this in a bit. I figure the whole experience might as well be about democracy and empowerment for white and black alike through personal expression, rhythm and mutual fabulousness as anything else. Free your mind and your ass will follow, to quote a phrase.
As for the visit from Shonda Clinton, aka SATIVA DIVA, she did capably hold her own, clad in a “Maggot Brain” t-shirt. The interesting part was, as she rapped out a ditty about her perennial appreciation for the magic of the herb, I noticed an epiphany from the audience. As I watched, it seemed that it had dawned on roughly a dozen members of the audience that our elderly master of ceremonies rocked a stool for most of the show due to what could only have been chronic arthritis and decided to make airborne donations to ease the great man’s joint and ligament pain. Never let it be said that Bostonians don’t take hospitality seriously.
This was an encouraging sight, since upon entering the House of Blues I along with everyone else was subjected to an invigorating and thorough frisking of my person that included as a finale a sniffing of my cigarette pack. They made one of my friends eat the chocolate he’d bought for his wife earlier in the evening. I also would like to mention a peculiar and ironically perplexing sign on one of the back walls which, if memory serves, informed the concerned concertgoer not to take drugs, not to take other people’s drugs, not to take too many drugs, and to make sure to not take dugs in tandem with a friend for fear of dosage issues. Wise council, no doubt, but I was heartened to behold various members of the Parliament crew fighting off their glaucoma and – speculating here – terrible social anxiety by any means necessary.
The show wrapped up with a ritual closer that dates back to P-Funk’s 70’s era heyday. “Mothership Connection” was a sprawling, wide-ranging finale that, in keeping with Parliament’s commitment to joyful excess, ended about five times before finally dissolving in a cavalcade of drums and squealing saxophone. A few clusters of people begged an encore- “ain’t no party like a P-Funk party cuz’ a P-Funk party don’t stop!”- but by then the general consensus seemed to be that the funk had been sufficiently and properly offered and it was time to find your coat and head home. Clinton is an old man with a lot of mileage on him, for sure, and he had miles to go before he slept. P-Funk, mortal as anyone, may have to call it a night at some point but the party don’t need to stop. That’s on us, though, and for good reason – I think their next stop was New York. For us, shivering into the night cold, it was already well past the time the trains in Boston stopped running.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.