There aren’t many musicians whose vision is so far reaching that, more than simply innovating within their chosen genre, they have created their own mythical universe. But this is exactly what George Clinton has done in a career spanning 50 years, having spawned two highly successful bands with their own distinct personalities and sound in Parliament and Funkadelic, complete with cartoon-esque characters and idiosyncratic languages.
Photographs by David Harris
Although the two groups were originally separate entities they always shared personnel and these days they tour under the all-encompassing moniker George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic. Consequently tonight’s set list included cuts from throughout Clinton’s career, kicking off with the title track from Funkadelic’s 1973 Cosmic Slop.
As befitting the often unrefined sound of the band in their prime, the stage was littered with a variety of players who traded instruments and microphones constantly, with Clinton himself directing proceedings.
Resplendent in a sparkly silver top, dark sunglasses and a worn old hat, Clinton was the extreme opposite of a stereotyped rock star. Shuffling around the stage with an enthused grin on his face, he pointed to members when it was time for them to solo, and energetically waved his arms at the drummer in encouragement.
The ensemble was made up of drums, bass, keys, two guitars, three backing vocalists, with lead vocals being shared between the members, as well as the rapper Tra’zae Clinton, George's grandson. Clinton’s own vocals were quite muffled and low in the mix, his never pristine voice now reduced to more of a low growl, but to be fair, however iconic the sound, his singing has never been the main focus.
The first half of the set favoured the funk rock explorations of Funkadelic, along with a few cuts from more recent years, including ‘Get Low’ from 2014’s First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate. Also originally from that album, the band performed the remix version of ‘Ain’t That Funkin Kinda Hard On You?’, with Tra’zae nailing both Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube’s verses. The rapper’s swagger and voice suited the band perfectly, and further contributions from him would have been welcome.
Towards the middle of the set came the epic guitar solo madness of ‘Maggot Brain’, during which the Blackbyrd McKnight perfectly recreating Eddie Hazel’s iconic part and then some, with the melodic bass line serving as a steady counterpoint to the wild soloing. There was a general problem with microphone levels throughout the night and unfortunately when the drums kicked in halfway through the song it obscured the guitar quite a lot.
At certain points when Clinton sang people could be heard yelling for him to be turned up, and at a few points when the female backing vocalists took turns at singing lead they were almost completely inaudible. This didn’t take away from the overall experience, but it did seem perplexing for a show of this size.
The second half of the set was all about the funk hits, with ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ and ‘Flashlight’ ramping up the crowd participation levels of singing and clapping along.
While Clinton had spent the majority of the set sitting at the foot of the drum riser or walking around smiling at the music around him like a proud grandfather, when ‘Atomic Dog’ hit he summoned up extra reserves of energy, placing himself at the center of the madness, microphone in hand.
As befitting its own history, the show was a beautifully shambolic spectacle - two hours of furious funk, with a diverse collection of distinct personalities populating the stage, some incredible playing and timeless music.