Photo credit: Marcy Guiragossian
Photo credit: Marcy Guiragossian
This was the single greatest concert I have ever seen in my life. This beats R.E.M. in the MIT gym on the Preconstruction tour when they were young and hungry and wanted to kick some ass. This beats Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note two months before he died; that was more important, perhaps, but Diz had no chops left and it was kind of sad. This beats being at the taping of “Rapmania” at the Apollo in 1989, where everyone who was anyone in hip-hop was tearing it up and the hardcore Harlem crowd was booing L.L. for being soft (“don’t call it a comeback” my ass). This even beats watching Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque in a battle of the bands at the Rock’N'Bowl in New Orleans.
4 Sep 2002: Orpheum Theater Madison, Wisconsin
This, people, was the Mothership. I’ve been waiting to see this concert since I was in 7th grade and saw P.Funk footage on some ABC special about music. All my friends were like “Oh my god did you see Springsteen on that thing he was runnin’ all over the place he’s so cool” and all I could think was that I had to see George Clinton live sometime before I died. Or before he did.
And so when I walk into Madison’s newly revamped Orpheum Theater with my brother—to whom I had the honor and duty of introducing to the P when we were growing up in semi-rural Oregon—I only have two fears. One: was there any way that George Clinton could live up to my lofty expectations, now that he’s 60 and more famous for his samples and his hair than his actual music? And two: would my Madison people live up to the lofty expectations of a P.Funk audience? If this were a summer concert, I wouldn’t think so, but college just got back in session, which means that this is the first big show of the school year for UW students, which means kids are gonna go wild tonight.
The show starts right on time with the THC Mercenaries, a three-man rap squad from New Jersey. They are backed by three of the younger members of the P.Funk collective on drums and bass and guitar, and at first it seems pretty clear that the backing band was the best thing going on. They’re energetic and all, and I appreciate the fact that the three MCs have different flows and different stage attitudes, but they seem thrown at the lack of crowd response, and their choruses lack any kind of hook, even with the live band. So I go out to get us some beers . . . and return to a different group entirely. When I return, the rappers sound better and stronger and cooler, the band is serving the rhymes rather than the other way round, hands are waving in the air as if people just don’t care, etc. I’m thinking that “Summertime in ‘97” could be nice on the radio. Someone with money better snap ‘em up with the quickness.
But then they are done, and the place starts buzzing hard. Techies and musicians are walking around the stage randomly, but then a couple of them pick up guitars and instruments and start playing. Before we know it, it was on. (No, they don’t use the spaceship set anymore. Get over it.) An insignificant funk jam began, as people keep coming out onstage, some toting their instrument cases or gym bags, chatting with each other, some still tuning up. But as the stage starts to fill—six, seven, eight, nine musicians—the jam gets more and more serious, hard, tough.
That’s the secret of the Parliament/Funkadelic approach: the trivial is the significant. The old-timers are there: Lige Curry on bass switching off with Billy “Bass” Nelson, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and Blackbyrd McKnight and Michael Hampton on guitars, Eric “Razor Sharp” Johnson on keyboards and Frank “Kash” Waddie on drums—but they’re playing right along new members, most of whose names weren’t mentioned but who are obviously playing in the coolest finishing school in the world. It’s an apprenticeship, it’s a collective, it’s a working band containing sixty-year-olds and twenty-somethings. (By the end of the show, I count 19 different singers and musicians onstage at the same time.)
We all go nuts when Garry “Doo-Wop” Shider saunters out onstage. Most people, I imagine, are just psyched to see “the diaper guy” who they’d heard about from others who’d seen a show, and that’s cool. I mean, it’s hilarious: a middle-aged guy with a huge gut (and the most spectacular outie I’ve ever seen) wearing nothing but a big white diaper with “PFUNK” written on it. But Shider has been the secret weapon of P.Funk forever, as a songwriter, singer, guitarist, and Clinton’s right-hand man. And that’s the way he plays it throughout, coordinating everything, moving people’s guitar cords for them and checking to make sure microphones are working and smiling at the crowd and leading the chants and playing a beautiful blue guitar. The man is amazing. And he’s wearing a diaper.
So we don’t even miss George when Doo-Wop steers us through “Make My Funk the P.Funk”, which turns into “Funkentelechy” when the three female vocalists come out: Sheila Brody looking Detroit fabulous, Kendra Foster in a flapper dress and floppy hat, and Kim Manning doing hippie hottie Phish-y dancing. We segue right into “Bop Gun” and then “Gamin’ On Ya” (during which a tripping college student passes out in my aisle and is carried out by a house manager) and Foster starts off on a vocal solo and it’s all rolling right along . . .
. . . and then, like a mummy from the tomb, George Clinton appears from behind the stage and starts making his way up to the front. He takes his time, because he can, and because it’s cool. We can see every funked-up yellow and orange and green extension sprouting from his head, and we can tell he’s got a bemused look in his eye even though he’s wearing the darkest glasses ever made. And when he finally reaches the microphone and commands us to raise our hands, you know our hands are in the air. “Madison!” he yells, and we scream and make the devil-heavy-metal sign with our fingers. “It’s gonna be so funky in here!”
I think the music only stops maybe four times during the entire show. Some of these dudes have been playing together since the late ‘60s, but their show isn’t anything like a Dead noodlejam—it’s incredibly tight, like a James Brown show, but it never feels conducted: people know what to do, and they do it. When it’s time for Brody and Clinton to join in on a call and response of “The shit ain’t over!, they hit it for as long as they need to, and then Clinton nods his head and they move on to a Manning solo—way too many Stevie Nicks movements, but great vocals, and genuine happiness in Clinton’s smile (“Didn’t my white girl do good?” is all but said out loud) and then suddenly Eric McFadden is wailing away on an electric mandolin solo. Yeah, you heard me right.
And it’s all Loud As A Motha: the three horns are juiced heavily, the synth squiggles are assaulting, and every guitar solo is heavy and overmodulated and feedbacky. Hampton’s having some trouble at first, starts screwing up on some of his solos and laughing at his own futility, but he ends up figuring it out. Just about everyone leaves the stage for his blistering 15-minute “Maggot Brain”—middle-aged friends of mine can’t take the volume and bolt, but I look around to see nothing but jaws hanging open in astonishment at his technical bravura and pure soul. Then he leaves, and McKnight, who was a temporary member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, gets his own solo; at this point, my ears are ringing so badly that it sounds like he’s playing two screechy tones for the entire piece, but I can see his fingers flying back and forth, and it looks like he’s blowing it out, so we clap anyway.
The band is back to rip through “Flash Light,” which gives Carlos McMurray the chance to dance around in the Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk suit. (Dude’s got some Serious Abs. Hate him.) We’re shrieking “Flash Light” every time Clinton tells us to, but our voices are shot, so he tortures us and makes us do that for about three or four hilarious minutes. Then that drum beat comes in and we’re smack-dab in the middle of an epic version of “(Not Just) Knee Deep”, which contains an interpolated version of “Sentimental Journey” for Foster to wail on while George starts tangoing with some college girl in a long red slinkdress. The look on his face as he does this makes everyone laugh and smile so hard I can hear faces cracking and defenses melting all over the hall.
Hell, I know I’m gushing. I know I’m supposed to be more intellectual about this, more detached, more clinical. I know I’m running the risk of turning off people who think music is all about suffering and angst and “difficulty.” But those people suck anyway, and I don’t care. This was the best band in America, maybe the best live band in American history, playing funky metal music that is more avant-garde and influential and “difficult” than anyone will ever give them credit for. This was everything I had every hoped it would be from the time I was in 7th grade. This was three and a half hours of communion at the only church that matters.
And it woulda been more, too, had not the bastards who run the city decreed that the microphones be shut off at midnight. I’m gonna run for mayor.
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