The last time I saw the mothership land, Starchild was at the helm, dishing out interplanetary funk at an alarming rate. 500,000 watts of P-Funk power, to be precise, flanked by Sir Nose, the Diaper Man, and a host of gaudily attired outer space funkateers. It was quite a spectacle.
That was 1998, and George Clinton, a.k.a. Starchild, a.k.a. Lollipop Man, a.k.a. the memorable Dr. Funkenstein, still presided as the front man of the P-Funk/Parliament outfit. Even then ole George was looking a bit weary around the star-shaped, multicolored sunglasses, but he proved worthy as the night wore on and the crowd was urged to find the funk and indulge in the intergalactic orgy that took place. The kids left satisfied and the adults fought to catch their breath when the celebration concluded. A friend remarked that indeed, “the bomb was dropped,” and no one contested his bold interjection.
Since that fateful night, I would cease to think of it as a musical category and forever define the “funk” as a way of life, a movement of lively souls towards harmony, and a free-form exercise in raw, primal expression with an undeniably positive attitude geared towards the betterment of the species. Don’t ask me how, exactly, shaking your booty to bass-heavy, horn-tempered music can evolve humankind; but I’m pretty sure it plays a key role. Anyway, you may imagine the excitement and anticipatory salivation produced by the signs around campus announcing the arrival of P-Funk on Friday the 9th of February. Fellow funk afficianados and myself could hardly wait to don the sunglasses and butterfly collars. Yet, close inspection revealed that it was not the Parliament/P-Funk of days gone by. It was not the gang of cosmic bandits made famous by their legendary five-hour sets and provocative back-up singers bellowing the virtues of dancing underwater and arming yourself with a bop-gun. No my friends, this was the Original P-Funk, sans Clinton, whatever that meant.
Hmmm, thought I, will it be the same? Will they sing “Flashlight”? Will they dress funny? Will we experience ecstasy in the dynamic range of vocal artistry that propelled the band to the top of the charts, repeatedly, I might add, in their heyday? So many questions, so few answers.
Friday finally came, with visions of funk dancing in the head. We prepared as necessary and embarked on the journey. After being accosted and held at the door of Illusions for a minor Cat Card mishap, I gained entrance into the dimly lit hall and surveyed the scene. At that point it was difficult to determine which could actually hold claim to the most funk–the band itself or the powerful waves of dank body odor which wafted heavily about the place. What at first appeared to be a dismal turnout soon proved to be a spirited display of rump shaking, hand-clapping, and breakdancing. In short, a damn good time.
The Original P was indeed garbed in some of the most outlandish and provacative outfits seen this side of The Village People. A spandex tank top leotard replete with multi-colored sequins and kinky metallic buckles adorned the lead singer, who gyrated consistently like a Nubian Elvis on a large dose of human adrenaline. Other members of the Original P were equally enthused to be there and costumed accordingly. From the keyboardist’s silver facemask to the Egyptian motif adopted by the baritone singer, one could tell this was to be no ordinary Friday night at the UC. The scantily clad, well-proportioned backup singers wailed like soulful banshees and the skies were rent from their homes and thrust aside as the very heavens shone majestically upon this motley arrangement of experienced musicians. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that majestic, but the repertoire of songs played resembled a greatest hits album. The crowd was pleased, and that is the point, right?
In fact, the crowd participation ascended to a level resembling an Old South tent revival, in which the holy spirit descends upon the congregation members and moves their bodies in weird, quick movements to signify their faith. In at least two instances, the crowd was invited, or possibly took initiative, and gained access to the stage where much dancing, bumping, grinding, and fevered merriment occurred.
In answer to my earlier question, they did play “Flashlight,” as well as “Atomic Dog,” “We Want the Funk” and a slew of traditional P-Funk standards. “Party Down People,” a track from the new Original P album, was introduced to the delight of the venue population. The acoustics on the third floor of the University Center ranged from fantastic to intolerable depending on how close you were to the ten-foot speakers that travel with the band. No one complained that the music was too soft. However, the vocals were sometimes a chore to decipher. Whether this can be attributed to the sound system or the singer himself remains to be seen. Overall, the performance was quite enjoyable: racy, loud, sweaty, and most importantly, funky.
Although George Clinton was not present this time, it would have to be said that the original line-up represented the essence of funk in a most faithful, accessible fashion. We’ll miss you, Starchild, but it’s good to know that the boys have got your back, and still do it to you in your eardrums.