I saw George Clinton for the first time in 1986—on TV.
It was “Late Night with David Letterman” and Clinton, sporting his rainbow-colored hair extensions, a shiny pajama-like suit and no shoes at all, showed the world what the funk is all about. He transformed his live performance of “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” into a party, running into the audience, jumping on chairs, screaming and challenging the seated crowd to “get up off your ass.” He turned that NBC studio inside out, and the crowd ate up every minute.
GC and P-Funk are still the real deal in 2009. It may be 33 years after Parliament- Funkadelic landed its first Mothership (October 27, 1976, at the Municipal Auditorium, to be exact), and 39 years after the first Funkadelic album was released, but P-Funk’s lasting relevancy is the truth, and its live show is the proof. More than any other band whose success was born out of the 1970s (including former labelmates Kiss), P-Funk continues to thrive in spite of its age. The group honors its tradition by continuing to feature smoking musicians and talented vocalists (including New Orleans-born Mary Griffin) without looking like a nostalgia act with a cheap costume budget. Let’s face it; the group could probably afford to make a healthy living touring off its Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fameinductee status, playing hour-long, greatest hits medleys on the casino circuit. Instead, it constantly turns the audience’s notion of what P-Funk is upside-down, the same way Clinton changed the notion of what a talk show musical guest should do at that ’86 Letterman visit. They interject hip-hop, jazz, blues, even electronic elements in a show that still boasts the same energetic funk ’n’ roll anarchy that has been its trademark since 1970. Some may argue that P-Funk doesn’t sound the same way they used to back in 1976. As well they shouldn’t. It’s a new day, so let a man come in and do the Cosmic Slop.
With that said, when you see P-Funk, you’re going to see P-Funk. The group’s live sound is consistently funky and always evolving, but the lineup is more classic than you’d think. Nine of the band’s current cavalcade of 26 (count ’em) band members have been in the group since 1979. Add an additional seven to that total for members who have been in the group for at least a decade. This sure beats Kool & the Gang, whose recent Gretna Fest performance, awesome as it was, boasted only two veteran members, with the rest looking younger than Lady Gaga.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic today, no matter how long each band member has been in the band, still stands toe to toe with all the great rock bands (yeah, I said rock). One never gets the sense that they’re on a nostalgia trip but, rather, on one of the most interesting, loudest, sometimes strangest and most danceable marathons you’ll ever witness—both on and off the stage. It’s like going to a Mardi Gras parade, but without the throws. Just in the audience alone you’ll find everyone from hardcore first-, second- and now third-generation P-Funk fans, leftover Grateful Deadheads who’ve adopted George as their post-Jerry leader, hip-hop heads who are looking for the source, hard rock ’n rollers and funk freaks, Atomic Dog-ettes, and the band’s growing legion of college kids who have christened P-Funk (with the “P” standing for “party”) as their favorite band. Perhaps it’s the irreverent spirit of playful, funky disobedience— the subversive quality from Funkadelic’s earliest days to its dance-in-the-face-of-the-apocalypse spirit that still attracts soldiers today.
And laying it down on stage is a parade of funk led by Gary Shider, a veteran powerhouse guitarist whose sanctified soul vocals will make you forget he’s wearing a diaper. There’s Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, another veteran, with lead guitar workouts that should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they know something about rock guitar. Then there’s Clinton, the leader of and reason behind this whole thang. In today’s musical landscape where “everybody’s funkin’ and don’t know how,” it is his irreverent, still fun and forever funkin’ approach to music and lyrics that make his and the band’s show as relevant today as 30 years ago, when they claimed to “rescue dance music from the blahs.”
P-Funk has always been more than a concert; it’s an experience. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll hear your favorite song, and it’s not guaranteed that the band is going to sound like what you might expect. In 2009, nothing about the P-Funk show is guaranteed, and that tradition of surprise, suspense and funky good times is what the best rock ’n’ roll is all about. It’s what Parliament-Funkadelic is all about, keeping true to its promise to “do you no harm,” like George running around the Letterman show, shouting, jumping and barefoot.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic play the SoCo/WWOZ Stage Halloween night at 8:30 p.m. DJ Soul Sister spins nightly with the Booty Patrol at 8:15 p.m. on the Preservation Hall Stage. She’ll also bring back her WWOZ P-Funk Marathon Saturday, October 31, from 12 a.m.-5a.m. on WWOZ 90.7 FM and wwoz.org.