Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.


Social Distancing Spins – Days 28 – 30

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone had a good holiday weekend (if you’re into that sort of thing).

R.E.M. – Reveal (2001) I counted down the days to this album’s release after hearing the lead single, “Imitation of Life.” While I still like that song and a few other moments on Reveal, it was the most unsatisfying experience I’d had with an R.E.M. album until that point. Reveal gets off to a strong start with the first handful of songs, but then just kind of floats on its pillows of keyboards. Reveal also receives a strong demerit for failing to include “Fascinating,” one of the band’s best late-period ballads. It was reportedly cut because it sounded too much like the other material, but Reveal’s biggest problem is that it sounds too samey, and few of its songs are as memorable – or beautiful – as “Fascinating.” Hearing Reveal made me wonder if Up, the band’s first album after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was a fluke. I don’t begrudge the band for pressing on as a trio, but the great moments were further apart.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978) George Clinton’s P-Funk was a well-oiled machine by the time bass man Bootsy Collins’ their album dropped. Your mileage with Bootsy? Player of the Year will depend on how much you like Clinton’s signature sound. “Bootsy? (What’s the Name of This Town” and “Roto-Rooter” are exactly the type of high-energy funk exercises you imagine them to be. (“Town” even features some funky flute.) “Hollywood Squares” opens with an appropriately theatrical fanfare, complete with tympani. The slow grind R&B workout “Very Yes” features uncredited but very accommodating female singers. The original funkateer is in prime form here.

Matthew Sweet – Wicked System of Things (2018) After a delightful trio of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet finally pivoted back to his solo career. That return featured so many ideas and guests it was split across two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. The Tomorrow follow-up features Sweet stripping down and rocking out in a trio. Wicked System features some Sweet’s most aggressive playing in nearly a decade, but just because the riffs are harder doesn’t mean the album is lacking Sweet’s power pop chops. “Eternity Now” and “Backwards Upside Down” are great pop songs that could easily slot alongside his ‘90s work in a setlist. “It’s a Charade” is a deceptively sunny protest song, thanks to the cheery backing vocals on the chorus. Wicked System of Things snuck out as a Record Store Day release. I’m not sure it is on streaming platforms, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of Sweet or power pop.

The Replacements – Hootenany (1983)

The Replacements – All Shook Down (1990) The Minneapolis college rock favorite’s second album is a beautiful mess, starting with the opening title track. “Hootenany” sounds like something some drunks would rip through in the basement while warming up. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Mats’ IDGAF ethos. “Run It,” the second song turns back to the more familiar sound of the band’s debut. Side one ends with “Mr. Whirly,” another drunken jam free-associating well-known riffs and lyrics. My favorite early ‘Mats song kicks off side two. “Within Your Reach” is the first glimpse of Paul Westerberg’s more sensitive and nuanced songwriting, which would blossom on the next two albums.

By the time of All Shook Down, Westerberg was positioning himself as a Serious Songwriter. While the compositions and performances are undoubtedly better, they also aren’t as much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album. “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody” and “Somebody Take the Wheel” belong on any solid Replacements playlist. “Sadly Beautiful” is Westerberg at his aching, lonely best. All Shook Down ends with a song called “The Last,” a fitting title for what would be the end of the line for the band.

Beatles – Anthology 1 (1995) It’s hard to believe, but right now we are as far from the release of the Beatles Anthology series as that landmark look back was from the end of the Beatles. It’s also hard to believe that something that was seen as the ultimate treasure trove when it came out has become so inessential today. Be honest, when was the last time you listened to any of the Anthology collections? Prior to this, it had been years for me, especially for this first volume. Thanks to all the spoken word interludes Anthology 1 has an audio documentary feel the other collections lack. At times it feels like the only reason a performance is included on the album is because it was featured in the film. It’s great fun watching the Fab Four ham it up on Morcambe and Wise, but hearing only the audio is much less fun (and insightful). Hearing the Decca audition tape and the Quarrymen performances are historically interesting but not musically vital. In other words, I’m glad they’re here and that I have them, but I rarely reach for them.

Of course, the big draw for this set was the reunion track “Free As a Bird.” I liked it at the time and I still enjoy it today. Then again, I am also a big fan of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as individual musicians, so I was already standing on third before the first pitch was thrown. Hearing these three interact musically on John Lennon’s recording is a delight, and frankly Anthology 1’s best moment. That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs here. The early versions of “One After 909” and hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Eight Days a Week” are definite high points. But the band was finding their footing more than they were experimenting. That came in the later, superior, Anthologies.

Review: Bootsy Collins

(Above: Bootsy Collins takes the stage in Kansas City, Mo. for the first time in a generation.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bootsy Collins comes by the nickname Star Child honestly. He plays a light-up star-shaped bass, is famous for his star sunglasses and has a personality so radiant he could be nothing but a star.

But it has also been many moons since the R&B pioneer and right-hand-man in George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire has been to town. Before Collins took the stage Saturday at VooDoo Lounge, his MC announced the last time the band was in Kansas City it played a funk festival at Arrowhead Stadium. If true, that would have been in the late 1970s.

Collins made up for lost time, opening with a torrential 20-minute medley of both solo and P-Funk classics. Snippets of “Hollywood Squares,” “Mothership Connection” and “Dr. Funkenstein” had the entire house dancing. Although he would perform some complete numbers, most of the night was basically a medley of his best-known songs and choruses.

The two-hour set only slowed down once, for the ballad “I’d Rather Be With You.” Even then, Collins slipped a few bars of “What’s a Telephone Number” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It’s incredible this hit was selected from all of Stevie Wonder’s considerable contributions to funk. It’s even more remarkable that Collins and his band made it work.

DSC_4314Several members of the 10-piece unit have played together for decades. Vocalist Mudbone Cooper and keyboard player Razor Sharp Johnson date to the original Rubber Band from the ’70s.

MC and drummer Kash Waddy goes back even further. He played with the Collins brothers in a band called the Pacemakers that was discovered by James Brown in the 1960s. Collins touched on those days during his monologue about working with Brown on the jam “Funk (Making Something out of Nothing).”

Collins was a little too generous in sharing the spotlight. He left the stage for tributes to friends Bobby Womack and Buddy Miles, a cover of Dee-Lite’s hit “Groove Is in the Heart,” on which he originally played bass, and, oddly, Parliament’s “Flashlight.” The performances were fine, but Collins was missed. His personality is huge, and just him being onstage pushed the energy up a couple notches.

Every time Collins left the stage he returned in a different outfit. The best was the mirror-ball tuxedo and top hat he wore to open the show, and the red-sequined Casper the Friendly Ghost gown he debuted last. During “Tear the Roof off the Sucker,” a couple of bandmates helped Collins remove the ghost gown to reveal a Chiefs jersey of Alex Smith underneath.

Dressed as if he were ready to return to Arrowhead, Collins jumped into the crowd and spent about 10 minutes hugging fans, shaking hands and posing for selfies as the band roared on.

When he finally returned to the stage, Collins announced he was auctioning the jersey to raise money for his Bootsy Collins Foundation. The jersey brought $600, and the winner got the privilege of closing down the vamp on “One Nation Under a Groove.”
Setlist: Bootsy? (What’s the Name of this Town) > PsychoticBumpSchool > Hollywood Squares > Mothership Connection > Dr. Funkenstein, Groove Is in the Heart, Don’t Take My Funk, Body Slam > Funk (Making Something out of Nothing), I’d Rather Be With You (including What’s a Telephone Number, I Just Called to Say I Love You), Them Changes, Flashlight, Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band) > Funk (Making Something out of Nothing) > Tear the Roof off the Sucker > Touch Somebody > Aqua Boogie > One Nation (Under a Groove).

Review: George Clinton (2012)

(Above: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars bust out the “Atomic Dog” at Crossroads KC on May 18, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Star’s concerts at Crossroads KC have become a rite of spring. The troupe has performed there almost every year since the venue opened. It was clear from the first song, however, that something was different at Friday night’s concert.

Clad in a white suite and hat and shorn of his trademark rainbow dreadlocks, Clinton was dressed for business. While he was content in the past to shuffle in and out of his stable of nearly two dozen musicians, this time he claimed the stage on the first number and left no doubt who was in charge.Performing without longtime foil Gary “Diaper Man” Shider, who succumbed to cancer in 2010, Clinton sang with an urgency and intensity.
As if reestablishing his legacy, Clinton pulled the first two songs of the night from the first two Funkadelic albums, both released in 1970. The lyrics to the second number, “I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You” set the tone: “Look out, here I come/right back where I started from.” Later in the night Clinton dug unearthed “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg,” which dated to his pre-funk doo-wop days in the Parliaments in the late 1960s.
Time has not been kind to Clinton’s voice. The musical pioneer’s raspy growl resembled Tom Waits doing James Brown, but it didn’t keep the 70-year-old from commanding the stage, jumping, shouting, directing and passing the mic to his son, granddaughter and grandson. During extended solos he took a seat by the drum kit, surveying the scene and snapping his fingers.
It took nearly 30 minutes before Clinton dropped the first big hit of the evening. A lengthy reading of “Flash Light” went straight into an equally extensive performance of “Freak of the Week,” best known today as the basis for De La Soul’s hit “Me, Myself and I.” Following “Freak,” Clinton turned the stage over to guitarist Michael Hampton for “Maggot Brain,” the “Free Brid” of funk solos.The All-Stars’ nearly annual appearances at Crossroads may have saturated the market. Despite perfect weather, the venue was only half full to start the weekend. The crowd was a diverse mix of races and ages, ranging from under-21 fans possibly seeing Clinton for the first time to longtime listeners who grew up on P-Funk.

The loose arrangements allowed plenty of room for improvisation, solos and sidetracks. “Freak” featured a detour into the standard “Sentimental Journey” while Clinton’s son and grandchildren each got a chance to showcase their rapping skills. At one point Clinton led the band into a bit of “Bustin’ Loose” in tribute to the recently deceased Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown.

Sometimes the arrangements were too free, though. Despite starting strong, the music meandered in the second half, particularly during “Up for the Downstroke” and “Aqua Boogie.”  Just when the band seemed headed off the cliff, however, they caught second wind at the two-hour mark. “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” seemed to invigorate both the crowd and musicians. A fun romp through “Atomic Dog” found many women from the crowd invited onstage to dance with the band and ended the night.

Keep reading:

Review: Chuck Brown Winds Up Annapolis

George Clinton is bringing the funk

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (2009)

Open wide for Mouth

(Above: Mouth gets “Gnarly” at the Jackpot Saloon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Fans wanting to pigeonhole Mouth’s music, do so at their own risk.

The three-piece Kansas City band combines elements of funk, jazz, pop, hip hop, electronica and progressive rock in their unique, dance-friendly instrumental songs.

“People have tried to make us either a jam band or a jazz/fusion band,” drummer Stephen “Gunar” Gunn says as guitarist Jeremy Anderson finishes the sentence. “Whatever genre people pigeonhole us as, they always complain.”

Talking with the band, which also includes bass player Zach Rizer, is like trying to catch a ping pong ball in a shower stall. The three are just as in synch in conversation as they are when playing. Words zip around as the three finish each other’s sentences and try to complete their own thoughts.

“I used to be afraid of being pigeonholed by the jam-band crowd,” Anderson says. “Honestly, they’re a lot more open-minded than anybody.”

They also provide a nice business model. Mouth tape all of their shows and try to saturate the market with recordings in hopes that the music will find its way out ahead of the band.

“These shows in Topeka and Wichita are the first time we’ve done two shows out of town in a row,” Gunn says of a recently completed road trip. “Right now we’re just trying to figure out how to play and get out on the road where we’ll at least earn near our gas money.”

Mouth – the name is a play on the fact that there’s no vocalist – perform in Springfield, Mo. on Saturday and will celebrate their first birthday on Jan. 29 at the Jazzhaus in Lawerence, Kan. One year ago the trio was playing a First Friday art exhibit and dipping their toe into the scene at the Jackpot Saloon.

Download the Mouth album "Escape from the North Pole" for free at

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a cake in, but I want to make party favors, maybe put songs on a CD and give them out,” Anderson said. Several friends of the band, including guitarist Matt DeViney, who co-founded Gunn’s previous band Groovelight, and local MCs Reach and Phantom will also help celebrate with the band.

Although hip hop is now a staple of the band’s catalog and all three members were longtime fans, embracing the genre was purely a business decision.  After six months of drawing meager crowds, Rizer looked at what was getting covered in the music press and where people were going and decided hip hop was the way to go. As soon as they made the switch, they attracted some attention in The Pitch. They also started growing unexpectedly as musicians.

“When you take anything from samples, you not only have to learn the parts, but you have to learn how to put them together,” Rizer says. “There are a lot of subtle things at work, like tambour and tone. The funny thing about hip hop is that DJs will play samples against each other you wouldn’t think to combine.”

For Anderson it was a chance to add his favorite elements of progressive rock – long, intricate parts – and incorporate them in a hip hop setting.

“Our songs are structured like progressive rock, but feel like hip hop,” he says. “We’re not playing prog hop, though. We’re playing hip hop.”

The members of Mouth grew up in musical families. Anderson’s little brother got a guitar, but never played it, so the 10-year-old started noodling on Steely Dan and King Crimson licks. Gunn grew up immersed in music. His dad was a drummer in the band Heat Index and moved out to California in his ‘20s to pursue a career in music. The white bass drum in Gunn’s kit was originally part of his dad’s rig.

“When I was 13, my dad didn’t want me to play because he thought it was bad for my ears,” Gunn says. “He put the kit away in the attic, but I kept getting it out and playing.”

Rizer’s father was also a musician. His dad and grandpa, both named David Rizer, were jazz musicians. Grandpa Rizer played guitar with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker. David Jr. plays trumpet, bass and sings and plays regularly with Everette DeVan at the Blue Room.

“My dad never pushed, but I was always surrounded by music,” says Rizer, who counts Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius and Motown bassman James Jamerson among his influences. “I didn’t listen to anything rock-ish until I was older.”

At Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, Anderson introduced Rizer to rock and roll, while Rizer shared his love of funk, soul and jazz. Gunn, meanwhile, forged his own path, eventually performing at Wakarusa Music Festival with Groovelight in 2005.

“That show was kind of a turning point for me,” Gunn says. “At the time, I was into the whole progressive side, with odd time signatures. I was into Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. At Wakarusa I realized people want to dance, not just listen. I used to play for the one guy who would appreciate us and tell us about that one measure 13/8. Now it’s come full circle to just wanting people to dance.”

One number the trio play is “Bad Wolf,” a new song that takes its name from Doctor Who. Anderson is seated, bent over his guitar, his nimble fingers dancing across the frets. When told his playing is reminiscent of Adrian Belew, he humbly replies “It should. I have his guitar and amp.” As Rizer’s groove takes over the melody, Gunn applies a hip hop/reggae rhythm on the drums. There’s very little eye contact; each musician lost in his own world.

“When we’re onstage, we definitely look at each other more,” Anderson said. “We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries of the song and include different elements.”

After a year together, Mouth has no future goals beyond continuing to push each other and trying to find a balance between the written and improvised.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where the music goes,” Gunn said. “We just pour ourselves into different scenes and see what happens.”

Review: Earth, Wind and Fire with Chicago

(Above: Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire team up to rock “25 or 4 to 6.” That song ended the duo’s three-hour performance at the Sprint Center on Sunday.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire took the stage Sunday night at the Sprint Center armed with enough musicians for a intramural football team and sufficient horns to start a Glenn Miller Orchestra franchise.

The 18-strong band opened with a tag-team of each other’s hits, opening appropriately with “Beginning” followed by “Never” and an extended “We Can Make It Happen.” The bands played like there was a penalty for letting the energy leg, barely pausing to take a breath between numbers.

With the crowd warmed up, Chicago departed leaving Earth, Wind and Fire to entertain on their own. The soul veterans were more than up to the task. They kicked off their hour-long set with “Boogie Wonderland,” which activated the hidden springs in each seat that forced everyone to their feet.

Serpentine Fire” and the Latin-influenced “Evil” made sure everyone kept moving until the cascade of slow jams: “That’s the Way of the World,” “After the Love is Gone” and a cover of Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here.” That number got a smooth jazz make-over that featured original member Philip Bailey’s pillow-soft falsetto.

The spotlights turned on the energetic crowd for a sing-along through “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which found the band working the lip of the stage shaking hands with the crowd. After “Fantasy,” the stage went dark and three huge neon drums were wheeled to center stage. Armed with neon drumsticks and shirts with lights the ad hoc drum corp. created an impressive groove that segued into the set-ending “Let’s Groove.”

Chicago did themselves a favor by scheduling a 20-minute intermission before their set, but they still had a hard time matching EWF’s energy. “Saturday in the Park” got things off to a good start and their cover of “I Can’t Let Go” returned the favor EWF paid with “Wishing You Were Here.”

Unfortunately, the band slipped into soft rock mode after an spirited “Alive Again.” “Look Away” melted into “Hard Habit To Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Just You and Me” and “Hold Me Now.” True, all the songs were hits and drew enthusiastic vocal support from the crowd, but putting them all together killed the pacing and energy.

After coaxing the audience back to their feet, Chicago’s 50-minute set closed with “Stronger Every Day.”
Despite just seven original members across the two groups, strong arrangements meant key departed musicians like Maurice White and Peter Cetera weren’t missed. With so much talent onstage, special effects took a back seat – the musicians were more than enough spectacle.

The stage featured a two-tiered riser with a drum kit on each side at the top which made the structure resemble twin pyramids. There was plenty of space out front for the artists to run around. None of them made better use of this space than EWF founding bass player Verdine White, who strutted in fringed bell-bottoms and appeared to be having the time of his life.

The upper deck of the Sprint Center was curtained off, leaving a cozy lower bowl that didn’t have many empty seats. The sound was good. Not clear enough to pick out each specific instrument, but each section was distinct. Drums thumped, guitars sizzled and horns punched.

This was the groups’ third tour together and it’s easy to see why both musicians and audiences keep coming back. While similar outings could turn into a battle of the bands, Chicago and EWF complement each other well. Both are known for soaring vocals and intricate horn lines and really are two sides of the same coin.

The night ended the same way it began, with both bands onstage trading hits. EWF’s “September” led into Chicago’s “Free,” which featured the sax players from both bands sparring over a White bassline that recalled the finer moments of Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s band.

The bands nailed the night shut with a run on “Sing A Song,” “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is,” “Shining Star” and “25 or 4 to 6” that didn’t leave any other option but to dance. Three hours after taking the stage together, the musicians celebrated each other like a sports team winning the pennant. In a way, they had.

George Clinton is bringing the funk

Parliament comes to the Crossroads with just a trace of James Brown.

The Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

If James Brown cleared the road from soul to funk, then George Clinton paved it.The link between the two is undeniable, not only in the style of music Brown and Clinton created, but because they used many of the same artists to create that music, and because Clinton modeled his P-Funk empire in part on Brown’s business blueprint.

Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, which includes his longtime drummer Frank “Kash” Waddy, play Crossroads, 417 E. 18th St., on Wednesday with 4 Fried Chickens and a Coke and Browntown.

The Godfather of Soul

George Clinton’s first impression of James Brown was not favorable.

“Back then, in my Motown days, we used to criticize him, until we knew better,” Clinton said of his days in the mid-’60s as a songwriter at the legendary Detroit label. “At Motown, we specialized in lyrics. Berry (Gordy, Motown’s president) made sure we got a story out of every song.”

Brown’s storytelling skills didn’t measure up to Hitsville U.S.A.’s standards.

“Everyone thought James wasn’t saying anything,” Clinton said. “It wasn’t until hip hop came along that we realized James was saying more in one ‘unh’ than all of our stories combined.”

Clinton left Motown and started a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. When The Parliaments record label folded, their backing band, The Funkadelics stepped into the spotlight. Funkadelic ushered in the 1970s with an aggressive blend of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown.

While Clinton was tinkering with the formation of Funkadelic, Brown was turning America on to hard funk and inspiring countless imitators.

“Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish and I all grew up in Cincinnati together playing music,” said Frank “Kash” Waddy. “Back then, every town would have a group that tried to sound like James Brown. We’d come up with false IDs, draw moustaches on our faces, wear sunglasses and a shirt and tie — anything to try to look as manly as possible so we could sneak into bars and play.”

The mid-adolescent trio of Bootsy on bass, Catfish on guitar and Waddy on drums did well enough on regional tours and local shows to eventually attract the attention of The Godfather himself.

“Little by little James got word of us and he’d come and sit in on our shows. That was some major validation,” Waddy said. “Really he was prepping us for if he needed us to join his band, but we didn’t know because we were totally naïve.”

After sitting in on studio sessions and short tours with Hank Ballard, Arthur Prysock and other artists on Brown’s King record label, Waddy and the Collins brothers got the call to join James himself onstage.

“It all happened so fast. He start by calling off a song and a key and count off,” Waddy said. “Since I was behind the drums I could see the whole scene. Bootsy and Catfish were bunched up by me. Kush (trumpet player Richard Thompson), Strawberry and (saxophonist) Pee Wee Ellis — all guys we idolized — were onstage with us, and in front was the biggest crowd we’d seen. We were scared out of our minds.”

Brown formed the original lineup of The J.B.s around those musicians and for the next couple years, Kash, Bootsy and Catfish toured the world with Brown.

“It was a good two months that we went around pinching ourselves, because we went from nothing to James Brown,” Waddy said. “James Brown had hotels. He was so powerful it was unbelievable. He had his own radio stations and record label.”

Brown had built a vertically integrated empire of recording, publishing, airplay and promotion, but he didn’t have everything.

“We got to looking at the guys who were with James all the time, and they all seemed to be kind of depressed,” Waddy said. “We didn’t understand it, but it wouldn’t be nothing to see a grown man cry or be upset, and James would keep them like that. I began to realize there was not happiness at the end of this rainbow.”

In 1971, the Cincinnati trio bolted from Brown and formed The Houseguests, a band whose sound was constantly being compared to Funkadelic’s.

“We had never heard Funkadelic before, but one night in Detriot we were playing on a bill between Funkadelic and Gladys Knight,” Waddy said. “George heard us that night and hired the whole band. The rest is history.”

The Hardest Working Man In Show Business

Recruiting Brown’s old rhythm section opened the door for more defections, as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and others eventually joined the Funkadelic family.

“At one time, we had all of James Brown’s band with us,” Clinton said through a laugh. “Working with James was something they’d complain about and idolize at the same time. You had to be the best in the world to be with James, because coming out of it almost any of those guys could run their own organization.”

Freed from the militaristic management of Brown, Clinton’s band was a playground for Brown’s former musicians.

“We left such a regimented, staunch environment with James, and got total freedom from George,” Waddy said. “It was a happy medium. We brought professional discipline and introduced George to The One (Brown’s style of emphasizing the one beat in his grooves).”

Clinton didn’t manage, he made sure shows were lined up, studio time was available and let the results speak for themselves.

“Man, I just got onstage and let them play what they wanted to play,” Clinton said. “Personality-wise I’d just let them be the bandleaders and tell them what I wanted.”

Building on the Motown model and Brown’s King label, and foreshadowing Prince’s Paisley Park empire, Clinton let his musicians front their own outfits under his production and input. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker led the Horny Horns, while Waddy and Catfish became core members of Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Other Clinton combos included The Parlets, The Brides of Funkenstien and Parliament, a happier, dance-friendly outlet for the Funkadelic musicians.

“We had a whole studio in Detroit called United Sounds to ourselves,” Waddy said. “We weren’t told you work on this and you work on this. You’d just go in, listen to a track and jump in if you could. George would come in and listen and might give one cut to the Horny Horns, another to the Rubber Band. Sometimes we’d go in and wouldn’t see daylight for three days.”

By the end of the decade, nearly all of Clinton’s bands were dominating dance floors and concert stages across the country. The ripple effect of that music was inescapable from the onslaught of imitators trying to capture that sound and feeling.

“For us funk was a way of life,” Waddy said. “We wouldn’t listen to TV or the radio because we didn’t want our stuff to be tainted. That’s why these songs have stood the test of time; they weren’t a fad, they were a way of life.”

Soul Brother No. 1

Clinton first got the idea for the mothership watching Lt. Uhura on an episode of Star Trek.

“I was thinking about putting black people where folks wouldn’t picture them. That’s why I got the idea of a spaceship with me sitting outside like a pimp mobile,” Clinton said. “Once Parliament got a hit record with ‘Up for the Downstroke,’ I took the royalty money and bought a spaceship. I wanted to do something big onstage like Sgt. Pepper or The Who’s Tommy.”

With the Brides of Funkenstien, The Parlets and Bootsy’s Rubber Band opening the show and everyone onstage for Parliament-Funkadelic’s set, Clinton set the new standard for stage performances.

“It changed the whole industry, because prior to us it was all three-piece suits with bass, guitar and an amp. Black guys would try to get by with as little as possible to keep overhead low,” Waddy said. “Now after us, all acts had to invest to compete.”

The stage wasn’t the only place Clinton was reinventing music.

“Our language was street talk,” Clinton said. “At the time black DJs with personalities were on the way out for Quiet Storm. We became our own DJs on our records and made that the standard. After that, DJs in the club started doing the same thing. Give yourself a few more years and artists were doing it over records, which became hip hop.”

There’s not much subtlety in the Clinton catalog, but the political content of his lyrics are a consistently understated element.

“I never wanted to write about boy/girl, black/white issues. I wanted to keep it vague, Clinton said. “I always avoided strict interpretations of politics, because I thought if people got caught up in that, the political winds were libel to change and people would just end up fighting against a particular stance.”

There are brains behind the bounce on songs like “Chocolate City” and “Think, It Ain’t Illegal Yet.”

“I applaud George, because he was always reading and wanting to teach. Issues we’re talking about today, like cloning, we talked about 30 years ago on ‘Placebo Syndrome’ when they were not mentioned,” Waddy said. “Politically, George was East Coast and James was Southern. James was just a dead hit with his lyrics. George was a little slicked up, more coy.”

Mr. Dynamite

Despite all his success and innovation, shortly after the 1980s dawned, Clinton and his bands found themselves without record contracts.

“One or two somebodies orchestrated all the negotiations with the labels in 1980,” Clinton said. “I didn’t think they’d throw us to the curb that quickly with all our hit records, and it all stopped at the exact same time I started Uncle Jam records.”

Clinton likened his experience to what happened to Prince in the early ’90s and revealed, “we’re just starting to get into the courts to see those papers and see what really happened, and I promise the full story will come out soon.”

“A lot of people say we got high and used up all our money on drugs,” Clinton said with a laugh. “It’s not true. We hadn’t gotten paid yet!”

Clinton had some success, but several of his musicians drifted away. Fortunately, for every musician who left, seemingly 10 rappers discovered the P-Funk sound. Clinton’s songs, along with Brown’s, are the most sampled in hip hop.

“Hip hop kept funk alive,” Clinton said. “I made a relationship with the artists, that instead of fighting them, I kept them close to me. Our records are like James Brown’s – they never get old.”

The proliferation of Clinton samples kept his catalog fresh. Even if listeners had never heard a P-Funk song, they probably knew “The Humpty Dance,” which relies on Clinton’s “Let’s Play House,” “Me, Myself and I,” which uses “(Not Just) Knee Deep” or any number of songs that liberally borrow “Atomic Dog.”

“We’ve been traveling around and playing so long that live music has caught back on,” Waddy said. “People don’t want to hear music from sequencers anymore. They want to hear live instrumentation and be entertained. Our crowds range from high schoolers to middle aged people.”

Or as Clinton puts it: “The charts don’t mean near as much anymore once you have a following.”

Today Clinton has a reality TV show in the works, a new record label, a reputation as a great live act and when Brown died on Christmas Day, claim to being the biggest living link to the funk era.

“There’s a lot of James Brown in our music, but it’s not only James Brown. We’ve got Motown and Jimi and Sly Stone and Ray Charles,” Clinton said. “There’s always so much of that stuff built into our music that by the time it got there, it was hard to pick out just one thing.”

Waddy, who is working on a book about his times with Brown and Clinton, is less modest.

“In my mind, James and George were nose and nose for years, but James always had a bit more of the edge because of seniority,” Waddy said. “Now that James is gone, George is the man. People are feeling it without realizing it. The public always has to have their guy, and right now George is on top of the heap.”

Keep Reading:

Concert review: George Clinton (2007)

Concert Review: George Clinton, May 6, 2005 at the Beaumont Club

Concert Review: George Clinton heats up cold night

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (2009)