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Published: 2005/10/12
by Randy Ray

Rick James- Super Freak Live 1982

When Phish brought George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars on stage during their 2003 New Years Run, it seemed to close a circle of funk stretching back over two decades. However, Trey Anastasio would be the first to admit that while their dalliance with cow funk was an exciting role, it was, in the end, a development and not a permanent sound. Funk has had a lot of detours since the P-Funk 1970s heyday and the late Rick James provided one of the best sonic scenic routes. Super Freak Live 1982 isnt a quicky concert film thrown together to capitalize on the late funksters 2004 death. This is a testament to a time when artists like James and Prince were grabbing the torch from Clinton, Collins, and Worrell and running full speed into the heart of the 1980s. Whether they succeeded or not is open to interpretation. Prince built a wide-ranging body of work that eclipsed James and his Mary Jane-lovin career, but Super Freak certainly does an excellent job of capturing that unique era.
The film begins backstage with James decked out in a multi-colored, sequined outfit that straddles the white line between late-era disco and post-punk hard-edged funk n roll. James sucks on a huge bottle of booze as he struts to the stage with his bandmates, who are equally decked out in an explosion of colors right out of the top of the P-Funk factory.
The show was filmed in Essen, Germany during one of their annual festivals, which in the previous year had included The Who and the Grateful Dead. The band is ready and charges into a hot Ghetto Life but the Germans are even more prepared. This is one of those epic encounters where you feel that the crowd has been waiting for this outlandish superstar for quite some time and when he arrived they were either going to rush the stage and destroy everyone like some mad affection of love and obsession OR bounce and dance and yell and sing in English until their throats were raw. Well, fortunately, in this case, it was the latter approach. At first, I was laughing at the spectacle: James is total Punk Funk Super Pimp Black God of Sex Rock and the crowd is filled with bushy-haired early 80s pasty pale white people. I half expected James to yell: YO! You crackers got it goin ON! Instead, James is visibly moved on several occasions by the crowds enthusiasm andat that momentEuropean techno was born. Berlin, a bit of a jaunt from Essen, would become a scorching hot bed of techno and rave house music in the late 80s and early 90s and youve got to think that 83 minutes doing battle with Rick James in 1982 laid down some of that foundation.
Theres a hell of a lot of swearing from James as he exhorts his German friends to take it to a higher levelliterally and figuratively. When James isnt sparking up an imaginary joint and performing sexual gestures, hes mofo this and come on, all you mofos that. For 1982, this was heady stuff. Hair metal bands hinted at debauchery; James gave hint the finger. I was pretty young at the time but I got into James using the same map everyone else was using. Prince opened up for the Stones in some markets in 1981. Then, you went home and got his records after reading about him being the next Hendrix and James Brown rolled into one by some kick ass rock critic like Dave Marsh. Whoathis guy is really good. James burst through the same crossover door hitting a very cool groove with people from all backgroundscolor barriers, be damned.
The film offers a bevy of cheesy sights, to be surefor example, the backup singers are pure 80s in dress and vocals and the lead guitarist, Tom McDermott, is Eddie Van Halens fair-headed brother right down to his Eddie-inspired artwork on his guitar and his fingertaps on the fretboard during a song labeled, gasp, Guitar Solo. (Can you imagine how many songs in your Phish boots youd have to label Guitar Solo or Band Solo or Home Appliance Solo?). The sound is equal parts audience mix and quasi-soundboard and the visuals arent always spot-on but, while youre shaking your ass around the room with this thing blasting out of your speakers, who really cares?
The Rick James Stone City Band runs through a breathless sequence from a huge, chest thumping Big Time to a career-defining Freaky and Fire It Up that are equal parts pure adrenalin and hot box rage. After James takes a solo turn on harp, the energy level enters meltdown. Standing on the Top offers a hint at life at the peak of a mountain where DOWN is, inevitably, the only direction home. The trademark stomp of Mary Jane is followed by a hilarious pseudo-theatrical Mary Jane March that is only possible to imagine when the buzz has reached zenith and silly Willy Wonka on Acid calisthenics are de rigueur. And they werein the 80s. The one-two uppercut and right cross duo of Give It To Me Baby and the encore Super Freak serve as fine examples of James adapting his work from a 45 record to the stage. I would be remiss if I didnt mention that James plays a cool guitar from time-to-time while moving from mike, harp, percussion and a clavinet during the set. He directs his massive band of Punk Funk horns, backup singers, multi-percussionists and guitarists into stop-on-a-dime rhythmic changes, strutting from left to right to center to right to offstage for a costume change and back to the spotlighta place where he was very much at home for only a brief spell during the 80s before his long artistic collapse. Super Freak Live 1982 captures Rick James in peak form without sacrificing a bit of raw human emotion.

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