IN TUNE: Funk legend George Clinton’s performance with the magnificent 420 Funk Mob at City Winery was a reminder of the risk of building our heroes too high: Somewhere along the line, they might topple on you.
Oh, Dr. Funkenstein had me pressed to the stage, along with everyone else, going up for the downstroke, riding a grandmaster jam that hopped from “One Nation Under a Groove” to “Give Up the Funk (We Want the Funk)” to “Tear the Roof…” and plenty more P-Funk magic.
The pride of Plainfield, N.J. (that’s right) beamed as he bopped – not in full beard, dreads and beads but closely-cropped in a black fedora and mumu that featured white images of barbed wire and brass knuckles, among others, along with the word “DEATH” on one sleeve and “DISHONOR” on the other.
At 70, though, you’d think the living embodiment of our collective funk history had gracefully passed through what I, at least, thought was an experimental rap phase.
Unfortunately, after a thrilling warmup by the overwhelming and under-appreciated 420FM, Clinton growled, snarled and shouted himself hoarse through “Rhythm and Rhyme,” an extended rap full of electric spanking and hate speech aimed at other rappers.
It was offensive when the track featuring Shock G, Money B and Humpty Hump was released in 1993 on “Hey, Man, Smell My Finger” (Yeah, I know: But there’s megawatt star power on what overall is a very good Clinton solo record, released on what once was Prince’s Paisley Park label).
“R&R” offends even more so today, although I doubt whether most of the urban dancefloor guerillas actually heard the bogus boasting.
Just like that, though, the faux bravura gave way to some captivating solos by The 420, which at one point swelled to 15 members, including Clinton.
What began as a side trip for Parliament-Funkadelic’s Michael “Clip” Payne has evolved into one of the most versatile jam bands around, a Family Stone-meets-The-Dead vehicle that frees your mind — so that your ass, of course, can follow.
That Clinton was there with them in City Winery’s intimate space, instead of on a grand stage outfitted with a mothership and assorted pyrotechnics, was a neat trick. It reminded people that all the outrageous costumes and joyous onstage jailbreaks way-back-when were built on some of the finest original funk this side of Sly Stone, Larry Graham and the Godfather of Soul.
The 420 Funk Mob melds that sound with some Sixties psychedelia, a bit of Sun Ra “arkestration,” and even a little soft rock, performed by a revolving cast of former P-Funk members and masterful musician friends.
Jam after jam, style after style, they sync up. One collective under a frequently hypnotic groove.
No Funkestra for this show: No problem.
It’s an often-used phrase, but this truly was a “Who’s Who” of funk: Along with saxman Shane Kirsch and fiddler Zach Brock were two drummers (Zach Alford and Chris “Gartdrum” Gartman), five guitarists (Joey Eppard up front, Jeremy Bernstein and JB Tenney, with Alana Orr and Robert “Chicken” Burke on bass), Greg Fitz from Bootsy’s Rubber Band on organ, Payne at the synth and another living legend, Badal Roy, the master tabla player, sitting at the front of the stage. On shakers and percussion: Richie “Shakin’ ” Nagan.
People moved in and out, at times thinning the herd, at others packing neatly together.
No one acknowledged it, but the show marked the 10-year anniversary of Clinton first getting “Mob”-ed up at Manhattan’s Wetlands, a jam club if ever there was one.
They’ve been together in the city since, including the first Rock to Save Darfur Concert in the cathedral-like hall at the Center for Ethical Culture uptown.
This time, ‘cept for that little bit of incorrectness early on, we all enjoyed a blessed reunion of rhythm and rhyme.
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