George Clinton and P-Funk, The Music Mill, Indianapolis IN- 3/21
Just past the strip malls, 18-screen megaplex, and lines of chain restaurants on 82nd Street in Indianapolis, lies The Music Mill, a small but upscale-looking restaurant/bar that just happens to house rock and roll club. The performance room is given a generous portion of the building, and has high ceilings, exposed duct work, and a black box atmosphere cavernous despite its intimacy. It seems ridiculous to think that a room like this could hold the mother ship of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and, indeed, twenty-five years ago it never would. But gone are the days of on-stage space ships and not-of-this-world costumes for George Clinton and P-Funk. The current line-up is a potpourri of original band members, who played in the shadows of the actual mother ship, and young new additions, who weren’t even a fetus in the hey day of Funk. Nonetheless, as band members untheatrically started to trickle on stage, the mood in the tiny room (with a crowd as diverse as the band) seemed to be one of optimistic anxiety: “I hope it’s like it was, I hope they remind us of when Funk ruled.”
After being lead into predictable chants of “We want the funk!” the crowd was greeted by the first sounds of guitars and an uncharacteristically dapper Garry Shider, wearing sleek sunglasses and a white overcoat. He looked like Jake and Elwood’s long-lost Funk brother, with a quiet, mature dignity to him. It wasn’t long, however, before the coat was opened to reveal Shider’s signature diaper, a vivid reminder that not too much has changed in twenty-five years. Shider’s grey hair may quickly be approaching the shade of his diaper, and there may be a lot more beer guts around the stage, but Bernie Worrell made it abundantly clear: “Tonight we’re gonna party like its 1979!”
This, however, was no nostalgia show.
Shider lead the festivities as the band worked the crowd into a steadily growing pitch, raising the energy and anticipation for the moment. When Clinton emerged fifteen minutes later in sunglasses, a hooded sweatshirt and a robe, lake a bear coaxed out of a twenty-five-year hibernation, his first words are grumbled and tired and might as well have been accompanied by a stretch and a yawn. But as he started to sing he violently ripped anybody aching for transcendence back to 1979 into the nitty-gritty present: “From the windows, to the walls, till the sweat drips from my balls, skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet God damn!”
Even Clinton himself told the old-time Funkateers in the crowd, “1979 ya’ll,” but the present the moment is what drove this show. Every performer says that they feed off of the energy of the audience, but I’ve never seen it more apparent than in George Clinton on a tiny stage in a tiny club tucked away in the corner of Indianapolis. In his first few minutes on stage he seemed grouchy, grumpy, not asking for a response from the audience, but demanding one. Though he claimed to want 1979, his attitude said, “Wake up! Get out of the past and into this night! I’m not gonna bother if you’re not ready!” He pounds the microphone in his hand, like a violent metronome, as the crowd screams, “skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet God damn!” back at him, and he seems fully prepared to continue until the crowd is at a level of fervor to his liking. As the responses got louder, as the clapping got more resonant, Clinton’s demeanor responded in-kind. His sunglasses and robe came off, his voice got clearer; he smiled. He seemed satisfied in having made it clear to the audience that their night would not be spent watching footage of a twenty-five-year-old concert, it would be spent as an integral part of that night’s show. They were not there to reminisce about twenty-five years ago; they were there to participate in the next three hours of their lives.
Of course, the songs that reached back the furthest were the ones that had the most power. Though not accompanied by any beams from the audience, an early and spirited “Flashlight” brought the old catalogue to vivid life, and “Atomic Dog” culminated with what seemed like every woman in the place joining the band on the already crowded stage while their husbands and boyfriends danced and let the dog in them smile. There were low spots, mind you, as the audience often seemed a little dumbfounded (or, at least, forgetful) when called on for a response; but they were eager for and receptive to a little coaching. Clinton was unfailingly bolstered by the crowd’s participation, at times telling his band to stop playing so he could hear the audience. Once, during “If Anybody Gets Funked Up,” (which eventually brought the most resonant and energetic participation of the night) echoes of the grumpy headmaster from the show’s opening sounded, as he told his band, “Make them [the audience] do it themselves.” The crowd responded and was immediately rewarded with a passionate jam from the band. Clinton himself spent most of the night in the roles of ring leader, master of revels, and conduit between band and audience. He rarely took the microphone and even more rarely carried the lead vocals. But his influence on the show was unmistakable. He generated the passion of the audience, accepted it, passed it on to the band, and stirred the pot of energy all night long.
Other than the noticeable absence of a space ship and elaborate costumes, the performance itself seems to have compromised very very little from its prime. With anywhere from twelve to fifteen band members on-stage at any one time (_most_ of them participating in the music somehow), the tiny Music Mill stage nearly overflowed. The horn section was relegated behind the stacks of Mesa Boogies (cranked, it seemed, even past 11), and the movements of the guitarists were restricted to their own very small chunk of stage real estate. But the cramped space didn’t stop Clinton and P-Funk from blaring through song after song, often with seamless segues blurring the distinction between song and jam. As much as four guitars played simultaneously, with an expected loss of distinction between their sounds. In fact, much of the musical intricacies were sacrificed in favor eardrum-rattling decibels. I suspect this is a decision made by the band rather than a lack of quality on the part of The Music Mill’s sound energy certainly was more important than details. Even the attempt to “slow things down a bit” with “Sexy Side of You” only lasted for three or four minutes before the tempo returned to its familiar fervor.
Perhaps it is fitting that the show climaxed nearly three hours after it began with a blistering melody of fifties standards, grounded by the baseline of “Let’s Go to the Hop.” The guitars screamed as loudly as they had all night and it was clear that these were not tunes for American Bandstand, these were songs for the wee hours of an Indianapolis morning. By that point, nearly 12:30 Wednesday morning, only the most dedicated Funketeers remained in the tiny back room of The Music Mill, and only a stripped down version of P-Funk remained on stage. Even Garry Shider had put pants and a jacket on but oh was he still playing. In those early am hours, Clinton and a few essential P-Funkers, along with a dedicated and passionate crowd, reveled in songs the preceded the golden age of Funk by as much as that very age precedes us but an unfailing awareness of the moment is what dominated. This was not a night to long for 1979, this was a night to celebrate fleeting presence.