It's not like George Clinton is underrated.
After all, Kendrick Lamar featured Clinton on the opening track of To Pimp a Butterfly, the very funky "Wesley's Theory," which finds Clinton spouting vintage P-Funk psychobabble — wise observations encased in psychedelic wordplay ("Lookin' down, it's quite a drop / Lookin' good when you're on top," Clinton chants, before dropping the dorm-room bong wisdom, "Look both ways before you cross my mind.") Rolling Stone gave him 6,300 words when he published his memoir earlier this year.
He's just not properly rated.
In that article, writer Mark Binelli details how Clinton's struggles with crack and his record labels have left him renting-to-own in Florida, touring the country in sprinter vans at age 73. For a man whose hooks built mansions (and sold platinum records) for men with nine-digit net worths, seeing him play in mid-size venues just seems unbefitting for such a musical titan. He should be gracefully riding off into the sunset, not staggering.
Too few people recognize the depth and importance of Clinton's vast catalog. If they did, he'd be playing stadiums. Instead, he plays mid-size venues across the world, and his current tour (it seems like he's never not on the road) brought him to the Pressroom in downtown Phoenix last night.
Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra opened the night, and the band fit the vibe like star-shaped sunglasses on Bootsy Collins. The group is similar to George Clinton's P-Funk ensembles in both size and groove. PAO of course leans more to afrobeat but isn't afraid to stretch out into funky territory, and with something like 15 people on stage, they created a wall of sound that warmed up the crowd before the main attraction.
George Clinton and company came out late in the evening, around 11 p.m., and the 14- or 15-piece band launched into the Parliament song "Mothership Connection," which welcomes the audience into the fun with the refrain, "If you hear any noise, it's just me and the boys, hit me / You gotta get in the band." They threw in a reference to "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" for good measure.
This was the fourth time I've seen George Clinton in the past seven years, and he and his played this song each time, but never the same way twice. This opening was different, too. Each previous time I've seen the band, Clinton hung out backstage the first couple of songs as the band warmed up the crowd, and they made sort of a big deal when he entered — the maestro approaching the podium to conduct his orchestra. This time, there was no entrance to speak of; Clinton just walked on stage and that was it. It was sort of awkward because nobody really knows what Clinton looks like these days. In his crack-smoking days, Clinton sported dreadlocks with rainbow inserts; he was easily recognizable. But that changed when Garry Shider — the diaper-wearing guitar player who was the longtime music director of Clinton's bands — died in 2010. The following year, Clinton had ditched the dreads and instead opted for tailored suits and a fedora, a look he maintains to this day. Unfortunately, Clinton doesn't sing much these days, opting for the role of bandleader over lead singer. Surrounded by more than 14 other musicians, it becomes somewhat tough to pick out Clinton from the crowd. I overheard more than one group of people wondering aloud which guy was Clinton.
As the first song concluded with the iconic chorus of "swing down sweet chariot / stop and let me ride" (famously sampled by Dr. Dre on "Let Me Ride" and "Regulate" by Nate Dogg and Warren G), the music stopped and the band began the radio-style intro to "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)." But instead of playing that song, the band stopped and talked to the crowd for a bit, before shouting, "Is this one nation under a groove, yo?!" and going into (obviously) the Funkadelic song "One Nation Under a Groove," offering people a "chance to dance your way out of your constriction."
The concert veered into more modern songs that had a more hip-hop feel. A rapper came on stage and did a few songs with the band, and he had a high-pitched voice that sounded somewhat like the Sir Nose character from P-Funk lore. HIs words got kind of buried in the mix and the somewhat cavernous high ceilings of the Pressroom, but he flowed well and the band sounded great. One of the female backup singers took a turn center stage, and she strutted her stuff and sounded very polished doing so.
Speaking of Sir Nose D'voidoffunk, he was present on stage, but his enemy Starchild was hardly there. The lore goes like this: Sir Nose doesn't dance and refuses to dance until his arch-nemesis Starchild (a Clinton alter ego) shoots him with the "bop gun." (This all goes down on the Parliament album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome.) In the ’70s, Clinton created a stage show to play this out to rival Pink Floyd, complete with an actual mothership and a huge bop gun. In recent years, Clinton has opted to just use his fingers. Thursday night, however, the ruse seemed to have worn thin on Clinton, as Sir Nose, dressed in a white fur coat, huge hat, and a set of abs that would make a wax statue jealous, had barely entered the stage before Clinton popped him with the finger-gun and he began to dance.
The concert then turned back to the old school, rattling off a catalog of classic P-Funk hits "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)," and "Flash Light," (featuring extended guitar solos and a cool trumpet-saxophone duet) which transitioned into "Something Stank and I Want Some," which features Clinton's granddaughter Sativa rapping about weed. Clinton lit up a doobie in celebration during the song, and then the band transitioned back into the ending of "Flash Light." It was sort of like watching a live DJ set, but with a huge funk orchestra instead of turntables. The band went into "Maggot Brain," which allowed guitarists Ricky Rouse and longtime P-Funk guitarist DeWayne McKnight to cut loose and shred on the song made famous by Eddie Hazel.
Then came "Give Up the Funk" (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" and then "Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples." A couple songs later the band launched into a rousing version of "Atomic Dog," a nice reward for the remaining half of the crowd that stuck around after midnight. The band pulled some attractive young ladies on stage to dance, and the night ended. The musicians began striking their own instruments, and crowd filtered out into the night.
If there's one thing about Clinton and company, it's this: They're misfits. Hippies. "Too white for black folks and too black for white folks," as Clinton writes in his memoir, quoted in the Rolling Stone article. Clinton began his career trying to break into Motown, but he was too weird and too individualistic. He started doing acid and writing rock music with Funkadelic, but not enough black people were into it, so started the more disco-oriented Parliament. Since then he's had a hand in multiple generations of hip-hop but has never truly broken out into the mainstream. And that's too bad. But maybe it's just in his nature. He'll always be on the outside looking in, partying unhinged on the fringes of the music world as those from the center gaze outward in admiration.
Last Night: George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic at the Pressroom
The Crowd: A really, really interesting mix. You had sharply dressed older folks, aged hippies, young hipsters, and everyone in between. A truly diverse audience.
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Random Notebook Dump: "Clinton's funk isn't static. It's not flatline. It's a living, breathing, evolving organism."
They Should Have Played: Anything from Let's Take It to the Stage such as "Be My Beach," "Get Off Your Ass and Jam," or "Baby I Owe You Something Good." I love those old Funkadelic records; I'd argue that six of them are undisputed classics. Some deeper Parliament cuts would have been welcome as well.
Personal Bias: If I haven't already made it clear, I love this band.