George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic :: 11.12.04 :: The Grand :: San Francisco, CA

First, there is the waiting.

Arriving at the stroke of nine o'clock, the official start time, my companion and I grabbed a cherry perch in the balcony. Random music fluttered over the chatter of a mostly empty room. After a half hour, everyone who showed up on time started to get restless but still no sign of anyone but roadies fussing with equipment. At 10:00 p.m. we really began to wonder if there was going to be a show. By this time the hall was filling up but another half hour would pass before the drummer came out to lead everyone in a chant of "We Want The Funk!" Normally, I wouldn't even mention a late start, it's standard issue at concerts unfortunately, but it was a harbinger of the unprofessional tone of the whole night. Not much care or concern for the fans was apparent in any aspect of the proceedings. Just so long as we showed up, paid for a ticket and bought our drinks then that was enough. But from the vantage point of a lifelong funkateer, this was a sad night for an increasingly tired P-Funk organization.

George Clinton by Tobias Begalke
This Mothership has been coasting on nostalgia for close to a decade. The last new studio albums were 1995's Dope Dogs and Hydraulic Funk followed by the surprisingly reenergized The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership in 1996. Since then all we've gotten are three or four live releases of the same old songs and no less than nine different greatest hits packages. For many, Pavlov need only ring the bell of "Flashlight" or "Up For The Down Stroke" and they salivate like well-trained pets. It does not matter that increasingly the band sings only the hooks and forgets the verses or that the once indestructible musicianship of the '70s has slipped a notch or five. As long as folks get what they expect, as long as that Atomic Dog barks, then they seem happy enough. But I challenge anyone to stop dancing, take their hand from the air and just listen to the music. Is George slurring his words? Did the drummer ever find the backbeat? Are the keyboards all over the place? How many of the singers came in on the chorus together and how many lagged behind? What was once a highly organized, glorious mess under the disciplined tutelage of Uncle Jam has become a circus without a ringleader. Oh George Clinton is there but he's not there, if you know what I mean. He's a figurehead in the nautical sense and there's still enough wind in the sails of the good ship Parliament Funkadelic to keep it going a bit longer. How long that may be remains to be seen.

Dr Funkenstein (of days gone past)
Through the haze of fragrant smoke and bourbon vapors, the band slowly emerged, a dozen or more strong at times. There's still nothing quite like the spectacle, the roughshod pageantry of P-Funk. Only the extensive retinue of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Fela Kuti begins to compare. The axiom of "power in numbers" truly applies to what they do. The sheer force of that many people singing and playing will sweep one up in a B.F. Skinner kind of way. The general outré qualities have toned down of late. Yeah, there's still a dude in a diaper and big ugly hats but only Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk had actual costumes. Most of the band, George included, wore track suits that made them look like extras in a Nelly video; the added flair on Clinton's red and white suit had enough endorsement patches to make him look like a human NASCAR. There was no magical light show or spaceships or dry ice shrouded platforms to cavort on. It was a bare bones affair, which is fine if the music is suitably absorbing. This was not and I found myself missing the capes and strobe lights more than I might have imagined.

I smiled at the first horn moans, though only a trumpet and saxophone held down what used to be a monstrous brass assault. "Funkentelechy" was the kick-off and the warm ooze in my skull reminded me how much of Clinton's music has seeped into the collective musical unconscious, a Jungian groove that will forever filter into the ground water of bands to come. Eight singers up front, three guitarists wailing, two keyboardists, a violinist, a bass player who shared his duties with at least two others and as far as I could tell only one drummer, leaned into the staple from what is perhaps Parliament's best known album.

George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic by Marcy G
Immediately, I was struck by how far off the beat everyone in the rhythm section was, a fact that was never rectified throughout the performance. Given that this is Funk, the motherland of bump, it seemed especially telling that P-Funk has a bunk rhythm team going. If one element outside of the singing, which was still up to snuff (especially the many talented ladies who took the mic), seems essential it's the backline. My percussionist buddy commented, "I know James Brown said it's all about hitting the one but you still need to be able to find the two." It was hugely distracting to listen to the out of sync drums spar with the various bassists. What one wants from the rhythm in this organization is an almost militaristic tightness. They carry all the other disparate elements, the solid foundation for all the crazed squiggles and wide left turns. With them off their game, the rest of the crew often seemed at a loss as to where they should go. At key junctures you could hear the guitars and keys crash into each other because the beat didn't go where they expected.

This is the first time in my half dozen P-Funk shows where this has been a problem but it is a big one. It is but one of several signs that Clinton is not surrounding himself with people who will be able to carry on after he's no longer able to. And the problems start with the top on down. It would be another half hour into the gig before George would quietly slip on stage. Moving like a frisky old letch, he stared at the young gals singing up a storm but said nothing for a good while. When he finally stepped to the microphone it still gives one a happy shiver. That voice is like God himself, a force of nature, a chemically altered James Earl Jones.

George Clinton by Marcy G
Then he started banging on the mic. Not because anything was wrong with it. He kept trying to use it like a percussion instrument, sending painful crackles of static through the speakers until the sound guy had to turn him off. And he kept doing it throughout the night. So, when he'd lift the thing to sing again nothing would come out for a few seconds because they had to turn his mic back on first. Often he seemed as lost as his band and there's no doubt their confusion stems from his own. Every now and again, he'd experience what Samuel L. Jackson once termed "a moment of clarity" and there before us stood the Lethal Lip, the master lyricist who knows a good sing-a-long can be buffeted by verses that seamlessly mix in politics and astute social criticism, all presented in an amazing psychedelic candy shell. Just as Ray Charles is praised for blending soul and gospel musics, George Clinton married hard rock to gospel and used Sly Stone and Ike Turner as groomsmen. He showed us what doo-wop looked like after a bag of mushrooms and he's given us a glimpse of what Hendrix might have evolved into if he'd lived. When anyone, and I mean anyone, steps out on a good foot they will land in his oversized shoe print somewhere along the way. A night in his presence is the closest thing many of us will come to a Baptist church meeting, where we stomp our feet, raises our voices to Heaven and scream "We shall overcome!" as George waves a "Bop Gun" at the forces of funk-less-ness.

Eric McFadden by Marcy G
But there were far too few glimpses of this George Clinton in San Francisco. He even left the stage for another 30 minutes later in the show. That did free up Michael Hampton, one of the last of the old guard still performing with the band along with fellow guitarists Blackbyrd McKnight and Garry Shider, to lay down some scorching fret work during the metalishous "Maggot Brain" section. Hearing him tear the heavy soul out of his instrument only made me aware that the players now don't summon up the Olympian scale of the seventies band. P-Funk has always been about the collective mojo they can muster but one wanted to learn the names of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins, Eddie Hazel, et al. because you were so blown away, blown apart even, by their musicianship. Today, the general level of playing is serviceable. Outside of the aforementioned rhythm section, everything is all right. They can reproduce some facsimile of the original songs and they can play for hours on end. But what solos they took were rarely memorable and that includes the aimless noodling of special guest Bernie Worrell, who seemed to be celebrated simply for being Bernie and being in the building. Only one musician stepped up and raised the game for everyone he touched during his brief visit and that was Eric McFadden. Dressed like an old west card sharp in velvet vest and natty bowler hat, McFadden shredded the steel strings of his electric mandolin. Leaning into people, dancing with the music, he showed himself to be a real gem, but he also spotlighted how none of the rest of the current line-up play with his intensity, joy or technical expertise. When he left all too quickly you could almost hear the vacuum he left in his wake.

A few newer numbers like "Bounce To This" exhibit signs of life but the lingering question since I walked out of the theatre is what will become of Parliament Funkadelic when there is no George Clinton as a prefix before their name? None of the people involved now is a protégée being groomed to take the crown from the aging king's head. The thing he's made always seemed so much larger than the man himself and up until the past few years I always suspected it would continue on forever whether George were involved or not. A lot of the people I spoke with at the show were first timers, new to the experience and thus unaware of what it was like even as recently as ten years ago. One of the pleasures of a P-Funk show is the mix of ages, the gray hairs and the tattooed young mingling, sharing a joint rolled for us all, an audio sacrament that can, at its best, lift us out of our constrictions. Right now it manages to be enjoyable enough to bring in enough people to fill up moderately sized halls but this was once a band that packed stadiums and still had followers lurking outside the gates. Such was the force of their vision, a kaleidoscope response to '60s social and musical upheaval potent enough to turn on millions. If it remains as disorientingly distracting as it was on this November night I can't help thinking it will squander all the love and hope it's engendered in many of us.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 11/22/04]

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