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Published: 2004/01/03
by Mike Greenhaus

George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Ice Palace Soundstage, Miami, FL- 12/30

George Clinton runs a successful circus. As ringmaster for P-Funk's seminal stage show, Clinton has served as funk's primary ambassador and spiritual guru for over forty years, embodying the genre's disheveled persona and loose-limbed lifestyle. More concerned with building a solid, bass-heavy groove than sanding down his sound's rough edges, Clinton creates consciously cluttered songs and allows his vaudeville-style ensemble a great deal of musical freedom both on stage and in the studio. So it makes sense that Clinton's first cross-pollination with the Phish community culminated with an all night, open-ended jam session at Miami's Ice Palace Soundstage. It is also fitting that P-Funk approached jam-nation like a neighboring empire, structurally adjoined but systematically separate.

Combining several of Clinton's passions, funk, psychedelic, and acid-comedy, P-Funk merged the veteran artist's nineteen-sixties soul and proto-funk experiments by way of two interlinked groups, Parliament and Funkadelic. After the original P-Funk's 1980s disbandment, Clinton organized a loose, rotating cast of characters that embodied P-Funk's funk flavor, if not its studio precision. Primarily a live vehicle for P-Funk and Clinton's lengthy canon, The All-Stars stay true to their original charter: creating, funky, rhythm-heavy music and playing long, late performances. Featuring several of P-Funk's more notorious players, including Kid Funkadelic, Cordell "Boogie" Mossan, Billy "Bass" Nelson, and musical director De Blackbird Wayne, Clinton's current comrades truly live up to their all-star moniker. Throughout the P-Funk All-Stars' four and half hour performance at the tail end of 2003, each member of the theatrical troupe sat beneath the Ice Palace's spotlight for at least a few minutes, accenting their high-energy performances with costumes that included diapers and elongated phallic symbols.

Billing his performance as a post-show for Phish's Miami Holiday Run, Clinton proved to be a humble host during his late night showcase. Appearing onstage with Phish early that evening for several songs, including better known numbers such as "Booty Ain't Nothing But a Butt," Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)," and "P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)," Clinton stacked his own set-list with different, more open-ended, selections from his repertoire. He also brought back original Parliament keyboardist and occasional P-Funk all-star Bernie Worrell, bolstering his ivory lineup to three at several points during his show. Having played keyboards with the Talking Heads for years and recently collaborating with jambands like Govt Mule and Deep Banana Blackout, Worrell has a green card to jam nation, acting as somewhat of a musical ringer throughout the night.

Funk is an important ingredient for many jambands. Phish themselves flirted with funk for several years before fully embracing the genre during their 1997 arena renaissance, playing a sound often described as "cow-funk." But after watching Phish and P-Funk perform side-by-side, P-funk is clearly from another musical realm. While many improvisational rock groups build their jams around funky guitar breaks and emphasize bass solos, their fusion is more indebted to Hancock's jazz-funk soul than P-Funk's bawdy, balls-out energy. Unlike their jamband neighbors, P-Funk doesn't tie their solos together with jazz structures or quirky time signatures. Instead, P-funk's approach is more hard-hitting and bloated, employing an orchestra full of similar instruments to create a brick wall of sound.

Living up to his legacy, Clinton didn't emerge onstage at the Ice Factory until 1:55 AM, an hour after his band mates began performing. With his multi-colored hair and husky frame firmly in place, Clinton ascended to the stage like a modern day Moses, ready to teach his disciples the Ten Commandments of funk. Along with his rotating ensemble, which featured between twelve and twenty musicians on-stage at any given time, Clinton belted out his lyrics at rapid speed. At times more concerned with rallying the crowd's energy than delivering clearly pronounced syllables, Clinton acted as a third-person narrator during his show, allowing the band to run free within his carefully calculated blueprint. Vocally drowned out by a sea of bass guitars, keyboards, and backup singers, Clinton also used his body as his chief spectacle, throwing around his weight and conducting his audience's disheveled bounce. Offering such P-Funk songs as "Speed Dreamin/Bounce to This," Clinton scorned funk's more accessible, soulful packaging allowing his instruments to consciously clash and his sexual imagery to border on grotesque.

Musically, P-Funk is messy. Their bass and low-ended keyboards all weaved into a similar, atonal rhythm. Similarly, none of the group's contrasting keyboardists took a proper solo, including Worrell who appeared to be having technical difficulties. But there was a hidden beauty within his disorganization. Instead of relying on a catchy groove to guide their jams, P-Funk used their beats to bring audiences into a carefully calculated clutter of noise. If one listens too closely, it doesn't make sense. A constant dance party, P-Funk kept their energy up-tempo until shortly before dawn. Reclaiming their frequently sampled bass-lines, the group kept their primarily white audience on the dance floor for well over four hours. Clinton also rotated his backing musicians at such a rapid speed that each performance acted as another sample is his funk soundtrack, creating a constant diverse set of beats.

Oddly enough, at about 2:30 AM Phish bassist Mike Gordon wondered onto the stage and picked up an empty bass guitar. Greeted with a Clinton led "Phish" chant, Gordon joined P-Funk for about forty-five minutes adding another layer to P-Funk's bass-heavy rhythm section. Though Gordon didn't add much musically to P-Funk's performance, his presence remained important. Bobbing his quasi-afro and plucking his bass strings, Gordon added another bit of spectacle to P-Funk's stage-show. A P-Funk performance is about energy and Gordon's brief set inspired the crowd to dance for a few extra minutes.

Concluding around 5:30 AM, P-Funk stopped when the Ice Palace pulled the plug on them. Several reports confirm that this symbolic moment is a daily part of the group's on-stage play, another magic trick in their circus. But whether or not the group employed a safety net or not, they still did some daring moves on their trapeze.

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