Why funk legend George Clinton is at Moe’s Alley this week
The news that George Clinton will be performing at Moe’s Alley this week is the biggest thing to hit Santa Cruz’s club scene in quite some time. On the face of it, it doesn’t add up. Funk’s most formidable living legend playing a 300-capacity nightclub in Santa Cruz?
After all, this is the man who led the Parliament-Funkadelic dynasty through more than three dozen hit singles, and platinum-selling, worldview-warping masterpiece albums like 1978’s One Nation Under a Groove. Without Clinton, the funk revolution ends in 1974 with James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” Without him, there is no hip-hop as we know it (just ask Dr. Dre, who in the course of establishing the West Coast sound sampled just about every hook Clinton put out). Or Prince, or even Red Hot Chili Peppers—especially if you acknowledge Freaky Styley, which Clinton produced, as their artistic breakthrough.
That’s my reading of funk history, at least. But to understand why George Clinton is at Moe’s this week, you have to understand that’s not how he sees it. While Brown put the “star” in “star time,” Clinton has always seen himself more as a master of ceremonies. Brown had sidemen, but Clinton has collaborators—and he built the P-Funk empire around them.
One of those collaborators, RonKat Spearman, plays Santa Cruz regularly with his band Katdelic. Spearman played for 10 years as a guitarist in Parliament-Funkadelic, and it wasn’t just a gig. Spearman’s solo music and style is closer to the psychedelic and spaced-out soul of P-Funk than any Clinton compatriot since Bootsy Collins—just check out his solo song “Dance On the Mothership.”
So it’s easy to see why Spearman would be one of Clinton’s top artists to work with. And when Katdelic planned to return to Moe’s this Friday, Clinton signed on to join him.
This team mentality stretches all the way back to Clinton’s days as a staff writer for Motown in the ’60s. When I talked to him most recently, in 2010, he told me about how he reached out to the world-class sidemen who had played with James Brown—bassist Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley—and offered them an artistic freedom they had never experienced.
“Nobody really thought Maceo and them could play the shit that they played, because when they played with James, it was mostly grooves,” said Clinton. “But when they started playing with us, they were allowed to clown. Maceo could go as far out in jazz as anybody in the world. Sly [Stone] said he could play more with three notes than anybody else could play with the whole scale.”
Clinton borrowed from jazz, putting the spotlight on the P-Funk players, which led to experimentation like Eddie Hazel’s unbelievable 10-minute guitar solo in the 1971 Funkadelic masterpiece “Maggot Brain.”
“I intentionally let them stretch out, because that was our time,” he told me. “We had made funk commercial, so my thing was to stretch it as far as you can musically, so people could appreciate it even when they wasn’t listening to me talk shit.”
Weirdly enough, Clinton says he pushed his bands to experiment so much because he felt that he was always trying to keep up with the musical breakthroughs of others—a concern that seems absurd now when listening to, say, Parliament’s 1975 album Mothership Connection.
“We actually over-psychedelicized it, ’cause I felt late,” said Clinton of P-Funk’s music. “I felt late on the feedback and stuff, because Cream and Jimi Hendrix, all them was tapering off. They was already beginning to feel too old to be doing what they thought was bubblegum, and they was getting ready to make it jazz then,” he says. “You had Miles [Davis] ready to play with Jimi and all that. But I was still of the Motown mind, playing to teenyboppers and kids. I didn’t want to leave them, but I knew that I had to change something. So I mixed it all together.”
Katdelic featuring George Clinton performs at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz; $30. 479-1854.