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George Clinton, the Reigning Hippie of Funk

// May 29,2013

Published: October 27, 1996

WHEN JERRY GARCIA died last year and the Grateful Dead disbanded shortly thereafter, the question arose as to who would inherit the band’s legacy of freewheeling, anything-goes music. Jam bands like Phish, Blues Traveler and God Street Wine, with their hippielike following of young fans, are certainly among the contenders. Perhaps the most unlikely candidate is the legendary George Clinton and his P-Funk All-Stars.

He even laughingly acknowledges the new fans he calls ”Deadheads for P-Funk,” who are part of a broader funk revival. ”We’re getting random Deadheads in search of new energy,” Mr. Clinton, 56, said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam, where his band had just played a concert.

The group’s sold-out Fourth of July benefit concert for Central Park Summerstage was a blissful throwback to the hippie consciousness of a Dead concert, with more than a touch of spectacle. Mr. Clinton paraded around the stage draped in a ”Lion King” bed sheet, his hair an explosion of multicolored extensions and bits of rags. Like a crazed Geppetto, Mr. Clinton, who doesn’t exactly sing or play an instrument, led a band of two dozen musicians and singers in outlandish get-ups: a diaper, a nun’s habit, a wedding gown with platform shoes.

The music was just as polymorphous, mainly funk with a mix of rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop, heavy metal, jazz and gospel. Throughout the four-hour show, Mr. Clinton was equal parts cheerleader and preacher, exhorting the interracial crowd to embrace what he calls ”the funk,” an amalgam of rhythm and sex, dancing and rebellion, knowledge and fun. That message was best summed up in the lyrics of a Clinton anthem: ”One nation under a groove/ Getting down just for the funk of it./One nation and we’re on the move/Nothing can stop us now.”

The show also marked the reunion of Mr. Clinton and his old band mates, the keyboardist Bernie Worrell and the bassist Bootsy Collins. Its highlight was the first appearance in 20 years of the Mothership, a gaudy spaceship with flashing lights and billowing smoke that descended to the stage about three hours into the show; it is Mr. Clinton’s metaphor for the power of funk to transport listeners to a better place.

The show was part of a tour expected to last at least three years. In much the way that the Dead had an annual show on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Clinton has done the same with Halloween. On Thursday, his band will perform at Roseland in Manhattan.

His shows offer a stark contrast to those of many of today’s black performers, who are more concerned with choreography than musicianship. Despite their appearance, the P-Funk All-Stars are all first-rate musicians. A George Clinton concert is more than just a night out to hear the hits; it’s a passport to a place where anything is possible.

”It’s a mythical experience in the classical sense of the word,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a Baptist minister who is the author of ”Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture.” ”It’s all about spiritual transcendence.”

Like the Grateful Dead, another band that made more of an impact live than on record, P-Funk works without a net. Its shows last for hours, musicians wander in and off the stage, and the groove takes precedence over anything else. At least to the ears of his admirers, the music that George Clinton and his collaborators create is the soundtrack to utopia, and the overall feeling is one of release and abandon.

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