funkadelic, paul mccartney, alanis morissette album covers

Random record reviews: Alanis Morissette, Paul McCartney, Funkadelic

By Joel Francis

Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.

Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.

Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.

Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.

The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.

High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.

If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.

funkadelic maggot brain album cover

And that’s just side one.

Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.

Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.

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Review: D’Angelo

(Above: D’Angelo’s signature slow jam “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” eventually ends up in church as the closing number in his June 9, 2015, concert at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The quaint concept of chronos means nothing to D’Angelo.

Twenty years after releasing his first album, the soul singer made his Kansas City debut at the Midland on Thursday night. He kept the crowd waiting more than an hour after an abbreviated opening set by Meg Mac’s backing band (the Australian singer was ill and unable to perform). Perfunctory encore breaks stretched more than five minutes.

D’Angelo made every moment worth the wait, and then some.

D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0321 Songs that span a few minutes on the album were stretched to more than double their length throughout the night as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band, The Vanguard, rode the groove and twisted every wrinkle out of the arrangements. The two-hour set leaned heavily on last year’s “Black Messiah” — his first release in 14 years.

A leading player in the mid-’90s neosoul movement, D’Angelo wears his influences proudly. “Sugah Daddy” started as one of the best Sly Stone songs D’Angelo never wrote (and better than several he did), until a flick of the wrist transformed it into a James Brown jam. The vamp between the first two songs of the night, “Ain’t That Easy” and “Betray My Heart,” sounded like a lost Parliament-Funkadelic track. References to Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire also were abundant.There wasn’t a bum note or dull moment in the set, but a few songs stand out. The powerful #blacklivesmatter anthem “The Charade” ended with D’Angelo and his two guitarists clustered together, taking solos as the song built in intensity.The pairing of “Left and Right” and “Chicken Grease” pushed the party to another level. With the two horn players and three backing vocalists lining the front of the stage, it felt like a New Orleans parade.D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0335Fans started heading toward the exits during the first encore set, when the clock tipped toward midnight. The ones who stayed were treated to an epic version of “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s biggest song. Unlike the infamous video, D’Angelo kept his clothes on, but ended the slow jam by dismissing his band members one by one, until he was alone behind the keyboard.

“Really Love” offered a chance for several band members to shine. Singer Kendra Foster stole the spotlight with ballet-influenced moves during the introduction. Bass player Pino Palladino’s nimble fingers provided a delicate counterpoint to Isaiah Starkey’s classical guitar. Later in the song, D’Angelo pulled Starkey out front for a great call-and-response solo, where scatting was transformed into fretwork.

Seconds after saying goodnight during “Chicken Grease,” D’Angelo called the saxophone player forward for a solo and disappeared, only to quickly return playing guitar. It would be another 20 minutes before he said goodnight and meant it. And everyone in the house was better for it.

Setlist: Ain’t That Easy; Betray My Heart; Spanish Joint; Really Love; The Charade; Brown Sugar; Sugah Daddy. Encore 1: Another Life / Back to the Future / Left and Right / Chicken Grease. Encore 2: Untitled (How Does It Feel).
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Review: Chuck Brown Winds Up Annapolis

(Above: Chuck Brown reworks the “Batman” theme at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

ANNAPOLIS, MD – When you’re as well-known and revered as Chuck Brown, it’s hard going anywhere unnoticed. Especially onstage.

Brown rattled off shout-outs, hellos and congratulations for several minutes before his eight-piece band finally settled down to business for the first of two Black Friday shows at Rams Head Live.

As the reigning Godfather of Go-Go, Brown showed off his guitar chops and sharp horn section with the extended opener “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Brown then put everyone in the holiday mood with a reading of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that lived somewhere between B.B. King and George Clinton. But the dance floor set up to the left of the stage remained conspicuously vacant.

The opening words of “Run Joe” – a cross between the Coasters, hip hop, reggae and a children’s song – unleashed a stampede to the floor. The moving multitude knew exactly when to throw Brown’s catch-phrases back at him, and forced the 73-year-old performer to split his time between the bodies in front of the stage and the spirited congregation on the side.

Go-go is a funk hybrid driven by congas and percussion and a palette wide enough to include jazz, blues, pop and Caribbean influences. Brown helped pioneer the form in the mid-‘70s. Born in Washington, D.C., the genre has yet to catch on beyond the Mid-Atlantic states. Brown’s shows feel like a cross between Parliament-Funkadelic and Jimmy Buffett.

Like Buffett, Brown has a dedicated following who know all the calls and responses and relish the opportunity to feel like part of the band. And like P-Funk, Brown’s band carries a strong groove that can hang on or switch up as often – and quickly – as their leader commands.

The heart of the show was Brown’s magnificent medley of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Midnight Sun,” “Moody’s Mood for Love” and the “Woody Woodpecker” theme. These songs were old when Brown started performing them a couple decades ago, but they’ve rarely felt as vital. Brown resuscitated these standards and made them feel like not nostalgic night club pieces but animated dance club anthems. For a moment, it felt a little like how all the stories described the Savoy Ballroom in its heyday.

But Brown’s set isn’t rooted in the past. He invited his daughter, keyboardist K.K., out front to lead the crowd through Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Thanks to the energy of the crowd and spirited performance by the band, these ubiquitous numbers also felt fresh. The band also proved a lesson that contemporary record producers have yet to learn: Pop music sounds infinitely better with a live rhythm section driving the track.

The evening ended with Lil Benny, another guest singer, leading the crowd through the pop and lock and other dance moves. In a year packed with Michael Jackson tributes, the Benny delivered one of the best. His version of “Butterfly” brought the song out of its cocoon.

Although he never left the stage, Brown closed the set by reclaiming the mic and performing “Bustin’ Loose,” his signature song. At 80 minutes, the performance felt a little light, and Brown conceded too much time to the other vocalists, but no one seemed to mind. Besides, another show was always right around the corner.

With the house lights up, Brown ended the night just as it started, talking with the crowd. Although Rams Head Live isn’t much bigger than the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan. – the biggest difference is that the room is positioned horizontally with the stage in the middle, instead of vertically with the stage at the end – it was going to Brown a while to reach the dressing room. And he was going to enjoy every moment of the journey.

George Clinton is bringing the funk

(Above: This song is a “Quickie” but George Clinton’s musical career as a funk pioneer has encompassed more than five decades.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

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)