George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic: Academy, Manchester
George Clinton makes his final visit to Manchester, but despite his impending retirement, Shaun Ponsonby finds a defiant Dr Funkenstein refusing to rest on his laurels.
The funkiest man alive has announced that he is retiring from the stage in May next year, which means in all likelihood George Clinton won’t be returning to the UK stage.
At 77 years old, and with a career that stretches back to doo wop, and a live performer who still feels more vibrant on stage than any of the kids you care to mention, it is probably only fair that he is allowed to take some time off.
And what is most striking about tonight’s show is that even though he is unlikely to return, he hasn’t just presented a nostalgia fest to us. He is still firmly looking at the future.
Unusual for P. Funk shows, there was an opening act; Miss Velvet, who came across somewhat like a funky Janis Joplin, a feeling that was only extended by her closing with Summertime.
When Clinton and company arrived, they open with a lengthy jam – a vamp through a handful of the early, freakier Funkadelic tunes. It was hard to separate the tunes, but we spotted Mommy What’s a Funkadelic?, Stuffs and Things and I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing, before launching into a full length Cosmic Slop (the track that gave us a domain name!)
Between 15-20 funkateers (we kept losing count) decked out in a variety of paraphernalia gradually started making their way on stage. It genuinely feels like you are stepping into an entire universe. This is not the world as we know it. Every time you think everyone is on stage, about six more people arrive, each dressed in an increasingly elaborate way. You have young guys in casual clothing, a woman who is seemingly dressed as a cat and at least one pimp.
After that, though, we were firmly in the here and now for most of the show. Pole Power kicks off a series of tracks from the most recent Funkadelic album, First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate, where for the most part the third generation P. Funkers – mainly rappers – take the lead. George often takes a seat, but seeing him up close it is obvious how much he is conducting the madness around him.
And it is madness. You never quite know where they are going to go next. In a way, they seem to give us their own grimey history of popular music in three hours. There is an undeniable purity about it. Who else links doo-wop to hip-hop, and everything in between?
Sure, there’s the heavy funk that they are best known for, but there are those soulful vocals, the hip-hop of Get Low, the nu metal (seriously!) of Dirty Queen and some of the finest hard rock to come out of Detroit, as guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight takes the lead on an awe-inspiring rendition of the 1971 instrumental Maggot Brain, one of the seminal guitar pieces of all time.
He doesn’t emulate original player Eddie Hazel, he does his own thing with respect to the originator, which is true of all the musicians on stage. If people expect a nostalgic stroll down Memory Lane, then stay at home and listen to the records. This is not what is on display tonight.
There is a second lengthy stroll through a more recent album in the second half of the show, with three or four tracks from the new Parliament album Medicaid Fraud Dogg, which again sees the grandkids take the lead.
What this means is that there’s a whole list of P. Funk classics that are conspicuous by their absence. On paper, it is kind of baffling that Clinton would think that anyone in the crowd would rather hear Psychotropic and Take Two over Up For The Downstroke, Mothership Connection and, most bizarrely, One Nation Under a Groove.
But, in reality, we didn’t really notice they weren’t played until the drive home. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what P. Funk plays. It has never been about that. It’s about the party, and the unity. Clinton has suggested that the operation could continue without him, and it’s obvious at times that he has allowed Trey Lewd to lead the crowd, possibly with the intention of handing the baton to him next year. I mean, if The Wailers can tour without Bob Marley, then why not?
There were some surprises; for decades P. Funk have segued from Give Up The Funk into Night of the Thumpasarous Peoples. Tonight they segue into new track I’m Gon Make U Sick O’Me, which was a far better song on stage than it’s studio version. Most pleasingly, though, before Maggot Brain we were treated to deep cut Fish, Chips and Sweat from 1970’s Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow.
P. Funk shows are not a place for the pretentious. You have to fully embrace the goings on. In the words of the man himself; “Free your mind and your ass will follow”. In time for uber classic Flash Light, Dr. Funkenstein’s arch nemesis appears on stage.
Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk is an unfunky pimp, determined to stop the funk. His presence represents the non-funk, the hatred, the oppression, the mind control. Sir Nose can only be defeated if the audience make him dance – and dance he does. Ripping off his fur coat, he performs flips, body pops, dances on top of the speakers and makes his way down to the crowd up front.
It is barely controlled chaos, but through this retains its edge. No other artist who has attained the level of success that Clinton has for so long has managed to keep that edge. He has created his own world, and built it up and maintained it for over 50 years. For a few hours a night, he welcomes us into that world for a taste of life as it should be.
And that’s why the world will be much less funky after Clinton’s retirement. But if anyone deserves it, it is him.
At the end of Atomic Dog, he leaves a northern English stage for the final time. It’s hard not to feel a little sad. The P. Funk universe is unique, and to talk personally for a moment, it has given me some of my fondest memories and the elation of the shows have actually pulled me out of bad places in the past.
But if anyone has earned the right to a peaceful retirement, it’s George Clinton. The man has done more to shape modern music than probably anybody else we can think of.
So, farewell, Dr Funkenstein. It has been a wild ride. You will be missed.
Pictures by Graham Smillie