…..Get Off Your Ass and Jam!

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The title of the post is one of the many things the man in the picture above had me and a few hundred or so others of all ages and walks of life chanting in unison the other night (month! Yea, I know, but play along…) at Boston’s House of Blues. He’s legendary for demanding maximum crowd participation at his concerts and giving his shows a genuinely party-like vibe.  The band and crowd are there to party together and collectively “tear the roof off the sucka”.  Recognize him?

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How about now? Yes, at the ripe old age of 72, George Clinton is still re-inventing himself. He has traded in his rainbow-colored hair and crazy costumes for a dapper look that would have been the epitome of unfunkyness during P-Funk’s heyday.  And I totally dig it. No, I don’t have any particular taste for his new look.  And YES, I think it is weird that the Dr. of all things funky is jamming out on stage in a nice suit and tie with a fedora to top it off. But that’s ALWAYS been the point of the good Dr. and his Funkmob. Their funkin’ is about challenging people’s tastes, comforts, and stereotypes.  Always has been and, thank goodness, at 72 he’s emphatically letting us know that it always will be.

What hasn’t changed is his and the latest configuration of the Funkmob’s (which includes two of his grandchildren) ability to turn a party out.  For nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes.  That’s right–for about twice as long as most bands a third of Clinton’s age are likely to put a show on for.  And they funked so hard, I think I was more worn out by the end than they were.  I wasn’t expecting that.

No, it wasn’t the P-funk show of the 70’s.  But it still had something that I think those shows conveyed.  That you don’t really understand what their music is about until you’ve partied with them to it.  The P-Funk collective does not put on a show with the primary purpose of entertaining, dazzling, or impressing and awing an audience. Although those are definitely all side-effects of what goes down.  Rather, they throw a party for everyone present and you can tell that they aren’t satisfied unless the crowd is fully engaged with them and giving back as much funk as they’re laying down.  They create an atmosphere in which the band and everyone there has a common purpose that can only be put in p-funk terms already used: tearin’ the roof off the sucka.  You know that the band is gonna do their part and you can’t help but feel responsible to add what you can in terms of singing, arm waving, good energy, and just plain uninhibited booty shakin’ to help pull it all off.  I’ve been to few concerts from major (or small) acts that really challenged me as an audience member, and none quite like this.  The audience at many big concerts will sing along to at least the popular songs of the act on stage and the artists know they can suddenly stop playing and allow the audience to hear themselves sing one of the classic lines from a song. But P-Funk goes much farther. They make up chants for the audience to sing or insist that they sing certain, sometimes complex, parts of the song and refuse to launch into the rest of the song until their sure the audience has it down.

Comparison with the performances of a funk-descendant art form, hip-hop, is revealing in this regard.  Almost always at a hip-hop show, there is the main MC that people are there to see and then one or more “hype-men” whose job it is to jump around the stage hyping up the crowd and periodically rap in unison with the main MC to emphasize certain lines.  The MC gets to focus on rapping and being the center of attention.  In a P-Funk show, the “hype-men” are all part of the band and the biggest hype-person of all is Dr. Funkenstein himself.  That’s right, the person putting the most energy into getting the crowd into everything is the supposed “star” of the show, George Clinton.

George gets as involved with the crowd as he can, to the point of sharing a J with an audience member.  At one point in the show, a crazy college dude got up on stage without being invited and just started dancing wildly.  Clinton and the others’ laughed, drew attention to him, and seemed genuinely happy to have him up there. In fact, when the bouncers came to take him away, Clinton personally stopped them and made them let him stay.  The audience loved it and Clinton, Sir Nose, and others even danced around with him a little.  Eventually the guy just dove into the crowd (though with more of a thud than a soft catch!) and the band just kept funkin’ away.  At another point the band let just about every woman that wanted to come up on the stage and dance.  Now of course there are some male-centered erotic and sensual overtones in only having women come up to dance.  But there wasn’t cherry picking of which women were allowed to come on, as in many hip-hop and rock shows, and the way the band interacted with them (primarily just leaving them to dance how they chose) made it a much more fun, sensual vibe than the overly sexualized and even exploitative one that can happen with similar things at many hip-hop and rock shows.  [And remember that they bring their own sensual male dancer along, in the persona of Sir Nose, who dances on stage most of the way through].

One of the things that stuck with me was how psychedelic, spontaneous, even somewhat chaotic much of the show was.  Many older bands that go on reunion tours lose the creative and spontaneous spark of their youth.  Even the successful ones are primarily good at playing the old hits in formulaic ways that elicit the nostalgia that fans come seeking.  Not P-Funk.  Many of their songs went into extended guitar, keyboard, and horn solos, or combined jams, that melted into swirling noise, distortion, experimental sounds, etc.  I’ve listened to a lot of live versions of Maggot Brain and not one had anything like the last 5 minutes of the version Michael Hampton pulled out of his hat that night.

So, I’ll always wish I could have been at the absolutely legendary P-Funk shows of the 70’s and early 80’s (even watching the poor quality YouTube clips gives you a sense that something special was happening).  But I’ll also always be grateful that Dr. Funkenstein and company chose to continue to keep funkin’ away into old age with new generations of funksters and that I got to be a Funkateer for one night to see them put all that they had into one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

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