SAN FRANCISCO -- George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic crew brings the funk maestro's ongoing farewell tour to the Bay Area for two shows in Saratoga and St. Helena this weekend.
Though he came after originators James Brown and Sly Stone, George Clinton has undoubtedly earned the title "Godfather of Funk." Colorful, subversive and groundbreaking, Clinton fused rock and R&B in the '60s, set the dance floor on fire with funk classics in the '70s, helped usher in computer-driven new wave and was a cornerstone of hip-hop since the '80s.
He started in the '50s as a vocalist in New Jersey soul group the Parliaments, but Clinton soon relocated to Detroit to try to jump aboard the Motown gravy train. Though he did some songwriting work for the soul label, his sensibilities were far grittier than what Berry Gordy was aiming for to remain "the sound of young America." For his group Funkadelic, Clinton took cues from high volume acid-rock era giants Jimi Hendrix and Cream (not to mention the influence of Detroit rockers the MC5 and the Stooges) to bring together soul grooves, psychedelic guitar and an outrageous stage show. But despite the crew's outlandish theatrics, Clinton also proved to be an astute sociopolitical commentator, addressing serious subject matter on the seminal albums Maggot Brain and the sprawling double LP America Eats Its Young.
By the mid '70s, Clinton was leading both Parliament and Funkadelic from underground status to chart success and extravagant arena productions that put the group on the same strata as Earth Wind and Fire. Clinton's excellent ear for talent also brought some of the best players in the business to his outfits including the late psychedelic guitar giant Eddie Hazel, keyboard scientist Bernie Worrell, and former James Brown sidement like Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. The subversive ringmaster and self-proclaimed Maggot Overlord shepherded his Parliament Funkadelic disciples to create classic hits like "P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" "Flashlight" and "Not Just (Knee Deep)," which would some of the most influential and heavily sampled music of the decade.
Combining humorous, satirical lyrics and space-age concepts with ferocious grooves, Clinton has remained an influential original throughout his career. Even as his solo star waned after early '80s hits "Atomic Dog" and "Do Fries Go With That Shake?" Clinton's songs were soon being sampled relentlessly by hip hop's new guard (Dr. Dre and N.W.A, Digital Underground, De La Soul and Tupac to name just a few).
Though his live performances during the 2000s added loose-limbed improvisational element that took away from the bite of his funk, Clinton has returned to performing and recording with a vengeance since breaking a longtime addiction to crack cocaine. The funk maestro detailed his triumphs and tragedies in the revealing memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? that came out in 2014 to glowing reviews. More importantly, Clinton and his collaborators issued the first new Funkadelic album in over three decades two years later.
A sprawling three-disc release that touches on the classic Funkadelic sound (soaring corrosive guitar solos, tongue-twisting vocals and scatological humor), First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate finds Clinton adding modern elements of hip-hop production and Auto-Tuned vocals to the mix. In 2018,Clinton announced earlier this year that he would retire from touring the following year after continuing his modern renaissance with the first album under the Parliament banner in nearly four decades -- Medicaid Fraud Dogg -- a sprawling 100-minute opus that tackles the nation's struggle with pharmaceuticals and social media while still indulging in the funk overlord's habit of "sayin' somethin' nasty."
The funk icon was also featured prominently in the latest season of Mike Judge's animated Cinemax show Tales from the Tour Bus, which featured the twisted escapades Clinton and his band got caught up in during the '70s (the band leader also served as a consulting producer and provided this season's revamped theme song). Clinton has suggested that P-Funk will continue on without him when he finally retires from the road, continuing to bring his music to audiences live.
The timeline of his retirement has changed since his original announcement. Clinton and company appeared at what was thought to be the band's final Bay Area appearance at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga in the summer of 2019, but since the pandemic derailed more touring plans, he has since returned to live performance with the band despite passing his 81st birthday. P-Funk comes the Bay Area for two shows with several other bands in tow, including jazz-funk hero Karl Denson and his band Tiny Universe.
Denson had already established himself as a formidable player by the early '90s thanks to his work with rocker Lenny Kravitz and as a solo jazz artist when the Greyboy Allstars formed in 1994. Coming together at the behest of their namesake San Diego-based acid jazz/funk producer DJ Greyboy to play the record release party for his Ubiquity Records debut Freestylin' (Denson had played on the album), the quintet drew on the cream of the Southern California city's young soul-jazz players. In addition to de facto leader Denson, the group featured keyboardist Robert Walter, guitarist Michael Andrews (playing under his stage name Elgin Park), bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor.
Quickly establishing a local following with their hard-grooving take on the '60s and '70s sounds of such boogaloo legends as Hammond B-3 maestros Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Brother Jack McDuff as well as the inevitable influence of funk godfather James Brown, the band began playing regular gigs up and down the West Coast. The Greyboy Allstars received a particularly warm embrace in San Francisco, where the group frequently sold out and sweaty dance parties at popular Mission club the Elbo Room.
The Allstars made their proper recorded debut in 1995 with West Coast Boogaloo, an energetic effort for Greyboy Records that featured a guest appearance by legendary James Brown bandleader and funk trombone great Fred Wesley. The group would continue to tour relentlessly, graduating to larger venues and becoming a festival favorite with their powerhouse live sets. After their follow-up sophomore album A Town Called Earth and a subsequent live concert document, the Allstars would take a break, allowing the individual members to pursue solo careers and like-minded band projects.
In addition to recording several albums as a leader, the musician would begin fronting his own band, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, in 1998. Mining a similar vein of funky, rock-tinged jazz that showcased his muscular tenor and melodic flute as well as a soulful singing voice, KDTU would become the saxophonist's main touring band. The group would release several albums since their 2002 studio debut The Bridge, including their most recent effort, 2014's New Ammo that features covers of "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes and "Sure Shot" by the Beastie Boys.
While Denson has stayed busy with other commitments as the featured horn player with the Rolling Stones since the passing of their longtime saxophonist Bobby Keys, he and the Tiny Universe still make regular visits to the Bay Area, frequently playing tribute to the likes of the Beasties and Run DMC (with regular collaborators Slightly Stoopid), Prince and Aretha Franklin. In 2019, Denson and his band celebrated the release of Gnomes & Badgers, their first new album in over five years.
The effort brings some serious guitar heat echoing classic Funkadelic on tracks like "Change My Way" and a sinuous cover of the Cyril Neville gem "Gossip." Denson would also reunite with the Greyboy Allstars to record and release Como Del Allstars during the COVID shutdown. This summit of modern and classic funk greats will also include popular Denver-based soul-jazz group the Motet with special guests Shira Ellis on vocals and former Turkuaz horn players Josh Schwartz and Chris Brouwers. Creative groove crew Dopapod opens the show. The tour comes to the Mountain Winery in Saratoga Friday and hits the outdoor stage at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena on Sunday, though that show does not include Denson and company.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic
Friday, Aug. 19, 5:30 p.m. $62-$375
The Mountain Winery
Sunday, Aug. 21, 5:30 p.m. $79-$144
Charles Krug Winery
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