Dr Funkenstein has no shoes. Onstage at the YouTube Theater in Inglewood, Los Angeles, 81-year-old funk trailblazer George Clinton looks so comfortable strolling around in bare feet that he could be in his living room at home. The rest of his outfit is considerably less understated: a sea captain’s hat covered in pearls and bedazzled robes give him the appearance of a human glitter ball, which isn’t entirely inaccurate.
It’s now 66 years since Clinton formed doo-wop group The Parliaments in the back room of a barber shop in Plainfield, New Jersey. After a spell as a staff songwriter for Motown in the Sixties, Clinton went on to give the sound of funk a revolutionary, acid-drenched makeover in the Seventies with his twin groups Parliament and Funkadelic. Incorporating psychedelic jazz, Detroit punk and Jimi Hendrix-style guitar pyrotechnics, Clinton’s brand of P-Funk produced a string of huge hits that continue to be heavily sampled by pop and hip-hop producers to this day. Meanwhile, his bands’ theatrical, science fiction-influenced live shows became the stuff of legend. The P-Funk Mothership, a UFO stage prop used in stadium concerts during the Seventies, is now preserved for posterity at Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There may not be a shiny metallic spaceship on stage with him on this farewell tour, but Clinton still takes evident delight in delivering the unexpected. He first appears onstage well before his bands do, sneaking out to surprise support act Blu Eye Extinction’s soprano and keyboardist Constance Hauman. When Clinton next appears, his eight-piece backing band are in full swing and he’s leading out an equal number of backing singers like a P-Funk Pied Piper. This vast, sprawling band produces a kind of chaos onstage: musicians switch instruments with casual insouciance, while at times there literally don’t seem to be enough working microphones to pass around all the vocalists.
The maelstrom of music that flows forth from this collective is thrilling, and the audience is soon up on its feet doing their best to raise the roof of the 6,000-seater venue. Clinton himself is sometimes overwhelmed by it all, taking moments to sit and spin on a short black office chair placed at centre stage, but his broad grin of pride and delight remains a constant.