Clinton for President

The mastermind behind Funkadelic and Parliament gave one of his very best performances in Birmingham, shouts Martin Longley.

George Clinton
O2 Academy

Since he emerged from a recent spell in hospital, George Clinton has been performing with renewed vigour. A few years ago, he would often take a back seat at his own gigs, hardly delivering the lead vocals, often leaving the stage, and possibly having trouble keeping up with his own legendary tendency towards epic three-hour-plus shows. Even so, those gigs were usually cooking, despite any lesser leader presence: Clinton’s players, and his extended team of singers and rappers always took care of the funk!

What’s happened during the last few years is that Clinton is much more involved, intensifying the powers of his posse to an even greater extent, as they feed off his manic enthusiasm. He’s slimmer now, imbued with the staying power to stand onstage for most of the set, and is even jumping up and down at key pumpin’ junctures of the show. The psychedelic locks are now shorn, and Clinton’s dressed like an urbane gangster (or possibly a jazz musician). He takes the lead vocals on a fair number of songs, and his voice sounds less raw and hoarse than it did a few years back.

At his second home in New York’s BB King club, Clinton will often strike up late with the sprawling Parliament-Funkadelic amalgamation-band, but that doesn’t matter as that joint seemingly has no curfew, so the set can meander in a jammy smear. Here at the Academy an 11pm finish was trumpeted, so ticket holders were advised to arrive around 8pm.

With the band on a UK tour, there’s a sense that the set has been tightened into a more conventional assault, maximising the power of the funk. It still has a loosened quality, but the players can cut sharply into an entirely fresh groove, at a sudden signal from their boss. Clinton leads a lolloping wind through songs that take in the broad repertoire available, a pioneer in the specialised field of encompassing frazzled funk-rock psychedelia, hard funk strutting, disco-soul lightness and a more recent infusion of hip-hop vocabulary, not least from his grandson, rapper Tra’zae Clinton.

The membership on this UK tour was surprisingly extensive, almost as voluminous as Clinton would have had closer to home, including trumpet, saxophone, keyboards, guitars and the aforementioned extended vocalist crowd.

Whatever the listener’s allegiance, there are sounds for all here, but your reviewer found himself most engorged by the heavier outpourings of the double lead guitars of Blackbyrd McKnight and Ricky Rouse, notably on the steady ascension of Maggot Brain, but often planted right in the midst of an ostensible funk song, stinging right out of a soulful vocal section. It was curious that old hand guitarist Michael Hampton wasn’t on the tour, as he’s been a regular feature of Clinton’s combo in recent years.

The expected peaks came in the shape of Flash Light, and One Nation Under A Groove, but this is a collective that specialises in multiple climaxes throughout the gig: several full-on freak-outs were way superior to what most bands would consider as the ultimate point in their set. The first ‘finish’ was barely ten minutes in, and many more complete orgasms shook the walls at periodic intervals. It certainly helped that the sound balance was of superior quality throughout, very loud, but perfectly balanced and without any unintended distortion.

The gig was crowded, but not uncomfortably so, the venue being about the right size to hold all the punters, without cramming us together into a Cosmic Slop. Plenty of room for dancing, as the crowd became ever more engaged with Clinton’s crazed vibe. In the end, they went ten minutes over the curfew, and looked like they very much wanted to play for longer. The encore genuinely looked like it nearly wasn’t allowed, as the guitarists hesitantly returned and started to strike up one of the night’s best songs, a psychedelic funk-rock stormer, with gravel-voiced emcee Michael ‘Clip’ Payne on lead vocals.

Clinton fucking lives for this music!!!