Smile Politely


George Clinton at the Canopy Club

May 7, 2009

The music offered by the sister supergroups Funkadelic and Parliament was so fresh, funky, and freaky, that for a long time I had the impression that they had exploded out of nowhere into a fully realized new style around 1970. I thought George — with Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, and the rest of the crew — just stepped off the Mothership into a recording contract. Strange to discover that Clinton had a previous life as an earthling, having had a career since the 1950s as a doo-wop singer and songwriter with a more conservative approach. He paid his dues, made his way in music industry, and then, I guess, turned on and found his groove with the stunning album Funkadelic.

Parliament and Funkadelic, while having different, equally imaginative and articulate styles, consisted of basically the same musicians, and either alter-ego produced an astonishing body of work in the 1970s. I love music I cannot understand, and I won’t pretend I can ever be funky enough to be down with a psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop. Like Sun Ra before him, and Kool Keith after him, George Clinton was impeccably convincing as a brother from another planet.


Of course, George Clinton’s previous incarnation as an earthling from New Jersey means that the rock star I am at the Canopy Club to worship is 67. I expected a rowdy crowd, but did not expect that most of that crowd would be young enough to be George Clinton’s great-grandchildren (assuming George Clinton has a predominantly white family). It is a tie-dyed jam band crowd that has turned out to hear music I expect to be so sophisticated it could be considered jazz.

To the strains of the “Prelude” to The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, much of the band has wandered onstage, and, with no sense of theatrics, clumsily begins the first of many extended Parliament covers: “Funkentelechy.” As more and more musicians continue to find their way to their instruments throughout the next half hour, I count at least twenty band members: black, white, young, old, male, female, flamboyant, nondescript, talented, and… interesting, or at least inexplicable.

As long as the rhythm section holds the groove tight, and the brilliant saxophonist and trumpet player lay down shiny icing over the top of the funk cake, the rest of the puzzle pieces — five or so guitarists, a few keyboards, a lewd contortionist, and innumerable vocalists (notably, the pyrotechnic Belita Woods!) reinterpreting the basic gist of the song — can fit in somewhere.

Confusion reigns. Band members wander in and out. At first, it seems that anybody who is dressed strangely or scantily enough can pass themselves off as a member of the band and find a place onstage. Two hours later, even this semblance of a dress code has been abandoned and college girls stand behind the band managing to gab at each other over overamplified guitar solos. Although the set and the songs seem to have no end, just an extended middle, and I lose hope that this event will build to an unforgettable musical climax, I keep on staring with some secret hope that this disorganized chaos and the confusing tension between band and audience members (why did the contortionist hold up a sign that says “Fuck George”?) will fly apart in some unforgettable incident that will make the papers and get the Canopy Club shut down.

But unfortunately there is just enough professionalism to keep disaster from happening. And there is also a quartet of cops on the unenviable funky beat beat who have apparently been called to track down the source of the cannabis smell that has pervaded the first hour of the concert. They are as confused as I am, and resort to carding people in the balcony by flashlight. They must feel ridiculous in their tidy uniforms.

George Clinton had kicked off the concert by inciting the crowd to chant. And then someone else appears onstage I realize must actually be George Clinton — a gentleman in a crown and black silk karate uniform. Still later, a third person appears that must really be George Clinton. This man looks old, like a black Ziggy Stardust, a funk peacock in orange and green plumage. The crowd goes… well, the crowd has been going wild all along. As has the band.

Should I wonder why the man whose name is on the marquee arrives onstage mid-song, the better part of an hour into the concert, with no fanfare, as if an afterthought? No matter. I guess that the guitarist wearing the sunglasses and baggy diaper is Garry “Starchild” Shider, but it’s anybody’s guess who anybody is. Except for Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, who somehow manages to outdress everybody in his rakish yellow hat and matching webbed suitjacket. He looks so good I wish we could find a less distracting band to put him in.

He takes the lead guitar — one of them — for “Maggot Brain,” and the stage is cleared — well, okay, not cleared — of everybody except three guitarists, a drummer, the bass, maybe a keyboardist, and some white fratboyish audience member standing behind the band drinking two beers and occasionally offering the index-finger-and-pinky gesture that says “I approve of rock.” Sir Crewcut D’Voidoffunk, in the spirit of tasting the maggots in the bitter mind of the universe, considers himself worthy of sharing the stage with a great funk band who stopped recording albums before he was born. Why don’t the police arrest his lame ass instead of the kids smoking Phish sticks?

George Clinton is a great American rock composer and producer, a visionary, a living legend, a King Midas of funk with the ability to touch funk into any production. While the music of his I admire most is more than three decades old, I could not pass up this chance to see the man and peer into his mystery. But I leave the concert (after three hours of improvised jams based mostly on P.Funk’s Greatest Hits) more confused than ever. Even if the tight arrangements that seem necessary to truly tear the roof off the sucker have unraveled a bit in his confused milieu, George Clinton’s mystique remains intact.

What the FUNK?

Photos by William Gillespie

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