The theme at Friday's P-Funk concert was hair. Stringy hair extensions, Lamont Sanford-styled lip art, ABA-approved sideburns/afro combinations. And in the middle of it, there was Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton, and his cleanly-shorn, reflective bald head.
Sporting a brown fedora, shades and blazer, the "new" George Clinton — sans the trademark multicolored weave — was a hit with the crowd at The Venue in Clearwater (not to mention a dead ringer for Thelonious Monk). Even though the change has been in effect since early this year, and was always kind of inevitable — as in 'good luck finding enough 70-year old hair to attach anything to' — it was a nice curveball. Your reaction to the rest of the show depended on who you were, what you looked like and whether or not you could remember what music was like back when funk was a bad word.
Translation: If you grew up on Snoop and the Chili Peppers, you knew the words to the set-ending "Atomic Dog," chanted "we're not worthy" during Mike Hampton's signature guitar meltdown in "Maggot Brain," and danced your ass off. If you grew up on '70s black FM radio (which excludes most of Tampa Bay by default), and spent your high school years doodling Sir Nose cartoons in your science lab book, you sang along with the lead AND background vocals to "Atomic Dog," and danced your ass off. If you discovered P-Funk on the jam band circuit, you came early enough to watch opener Fall On Purpose — a musical commune that seemed intent on squeezing the entire Burning Man festival onto the Venue stage, churning out a quirky jam/drum circle/rap/funk melange. After that, you danced some more through P-Funk's set, and still some more while waiting for the valet to return with your car.
Then again, if you knew the difference between Parliament and Funkadelic, who Pedro Bell is, chuckled when the band broke into Frank Zappa's "I'm The Slime" at the end of "Cosmic Slop," recognized "Maggot Brain" not by the opening guitar arpeggio, but by Clinton's opening monologue, and felt that any P-Funk show without Gary (Diaperman) Shider (who passed away in 2010) just wasn't complete, Friday's show was, well, okay. Fun, loose, goofy and hazardous to your spinal discs — nowhere near as good as you've seen but good enough to make you dance your ass off.
In Crosstown Traffic, author/critic Charles Shaar Murray used Jimi Hendrix's music and career to talk about post-war popular music and culture in its entirety. There is probably a similar book that should be written about Clinton. His resume includes bills with Iggy Pop and the Mc5, as well as a stint as a staff writer with Motown. In practice, that means the band can come at you from any one of several angles, depending on the situation. They can out-jam the jam bands, out funk the revivalists, and groove the fusion and progressive metal crowds.
Friday, though, the band was in "get 'er done" mode — none of the WTF-ish spontaneity that Clinton has claimed "are what P-Funk is all about." From the opening roar of "Cosmic Slop" on, the band kicked ass by the numbers thanks to a rhythm section that featured bassists Jeff Bunn, Lige Curry and keyboardist Danny Bedrosian, whose synth bass work powered tunes like "(Not Just) Knee Deep." The horn section had its share of highlights — a brief riff on "Freedom Jazz Dance" and an extended Philippe Wynne-homaging scat by sax player Bennie Cowan. Clinton's voice showed his age when he took the mic, but he still had it in him to engage in some semi-choreographed dance steps with his vocal section, re-imagining Morris Day and the Time as some tailgate party crashing Q-Dogs from back in the day.
Again, though, it was by the numbers, at least by P-Funk standards — badasses of this stripe can make karaoke sound like Weather Report. Then again, if you know P-Funk, you know all this. Which means you were at the show, and danced your ass off.