Sun Ra, the creator of space music jazz, believed music was a portal for space travel, and his esoteric and far-reaching compositions supported the idea that if, nobody else, Sun Ra indeed was traveling pretty far out there. George Clinton purveys the same notion for funk music, but does so on a bigger, more accessible (mother)ship. On Saturday and Sunday night at Tiptina’s 2nd annual New Year’s Masquarade Ball, Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic exhibited funk as an alternative, openly licentious lifestyle, rather than a mere genre of music. “Come to the mother ship, we going to be doing the tooty-rooty tonight.You ready to party?” Clinton invited the crowd.
Lyrics reverberate as if from outer space, men wore cartoonish costumes and more than 20 people crowded the stage in an ostentatious show of dissolute behavior to complement their loud space-age funk laced with hip-hop, acid-rock, and 70’s soul. Clinton, at 72 years, was less a musician and more of a conductor. He wore a slick red sports-coat over a sweater and red tie. He danced and motivated the crowd and screamed into the microphone with a voice that’s been a bit grated with age, but nevertheless remains effective in narrating an experiential and interactive concert.
At times, Clinton sat and watched, but this was excusable since Parliament Funkadelic played almost three hours hardly without a song break. Instead of pausing between numbers, they orchestrated long half-hour jams starting with recognizable original standards like Flashlight, and then sampling from their forty-year catalogue within the structure of the jam. There were no bridges between songs, just a quick switch of lyrics, and a whirlwind of instrumental solos led by guitarists Ricky Rouse and original member Michael Hampton. Sometimes solos were too extensive at five or more minutes long. All of it was anchored by heavy, steady bass-play and multiple keyboardists and drummers that allowed for the soloist play of the guitars and horns to layer the music. Clinton playfully sang, danced and invited an unending cast of young characters on stage that helped keep the band fresh, including Clinton’s granddaughter who interjected “Flashlight” with a rap interlude about marijuana and sex until Clinton facetiously kicked her off stage and took over again, but not before an audience member threw an unmarked bag at him which he gratefully smelled and pocketed.
Mary Griffin sang an over-the-top cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and the band played several favorites from their earlier years, including “Maggot Brain,” “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” “One Nation Under a Groove,” and “Mothership Connection.” Clinton remained the charismatic leader of the band, but relied on his peers to continue the high-energy psychedelic performance. The light show nicely accompanied the multi-instrumental sound and vocals flew in from unknown directions and places, providing a dizzying effect that enhanced an already colorful experience for the costumed crowd.
The beauty of Clinton is that his funk and style in all its flash still feels contemporary as we approach 2014, and even the older members of the band often outpaced a younger audience that flagged a bit at the end of the three hour set. New Orleanians should hope the ball remains an annual event for years to come.