On New Year’s Eve in San Francisco’s Market district, the mothership has no beginning or end. Flight may begin when the music begins. Or it may begin several hours earlier when afro- and platform-bedizened revelers are descended upon by technology-savvy homeless grifting the waiting crowd with karaoke machines and James Brown impressions. Or it may have begun nearly forty years ago when San Francisco itself went psychedelic and became the spiritual port for all things outer space.
All possibilities are truths at the historic Warfield Theatre. A walk inside displays the royalty of experimentalism since the ‘60s. James Brown, Bowie, the Ramones, James Brown, Bjork, local favorites Mr. Bungle, and dozens more artists provide The Warfield artistic sovereignty. And the crowd, too, are regal in their retro: The men in tonight’s crowd wear enough polyester leisure suit and velvet seersucker to end stagflation. The women stroll about in miniskirts and neon blue or green bob wigs, raising both Hong Kong’s economy and hormone levels. Sparkle sunglasses and Janis Joplin paisley one-pieces abound, with only a pair of Uggs to tip off historians that it is hours from 2009, not 1969. The crowd, more New Year’s Eve than rock ‘n’ roll show, continue to meander about as the Greyboy Allstars take the stage and launch into their first song. The Allstars, providing an evening of up-tempo, late ‘60s acid jazz, are a high-energy start for a high-energy crowd. Devoid of a large stage presence or anything resembling a talking head or icon, the Allstars rely on a deluge of syncopated sixteenth note riffs, familiar but never used up, to press their case. The opening instrumentals are so fast-paced that they blend into each other. If you want to dance with your hips, you have to dance halftime. A spotlight moves from soloist to soloist, but most in the crowd are facing their partner. By the third song the heavy smell of pot starts to sweep through the theatre, and the Allstars set changes tones with it. The groove slows down a bit to a Booker T and the MG’s pace, and lead vocalist and saxophonist Karl Denson cackles some melodies that bring a new dynamic to the set. The rest of their hour-long set moves back and forth between frenetic instrumental and mid-tempo ‘60s soul. If the Allstars can be faulted for anything, it is their faultless reproduction of acid jazz. But the songs, whether instrumental or vocal, are textured enough and played with such vigor that emulation is not an issue. They and their music are a class act, from their matching suits to their ability to capture a crowd with talent, not gimmicks. If a small wall exists between crowd and performer, it is the lack of backing vocals and playfulness that marks the Allstars’ latest album and cannot be recaptured with a reduced five-piece band sans horn arrangements and female vocalists.
With ninety minutes to go before 2009 sweeps into San Francisco, Parliament/Funkadelic takes the stage. Garry “Starchild” Shider, wearing his best diaper and Reeboks, revs the excessively large band up to speed within five minutes. While awaiting George Clinton’s arrival over the next hour, the P-funk’s set provides two things absent from the Allstars show. First, that spacey 1970s electric-psychedelia-wah that requires thick, fuzzy distortion, not speed, to create its aura. Second, the diapered Starchild, the only focal point and mouthpiece for Parliament/Funkadelic, preaches from time to time. “We gotta help Obama,” he shouts repeatedly during a lull in the band’s astrogroove funk. This preaching temporarily removes the concert from pure dance bliss and reminds one that Parliament/Funkadelic originated in a Civil Rights-era political message as well as a new funk aesthetic.
Seventy-five minutes into the show, George Clinton is nowhere to be found. While the band has done an admirable job of switching up MCs, vocalists, and featured soloists, the striking female backup singer on roller-skates cannot carry the evening herself. The mothership appears captain-less and, to some extent, on autopilot. Worse yet, I cannot spot any young talent to steer the ship once Clinton and Starchild, the only two personalities left in the band, give up their funk. I exit to the balcony bar for a quick scotch before midnight and take a seat on the steps next to a 40’ish party-girl usher who is guarding the backstage entrance. I ask her if Clinton is in the house. She doesn’t know, but intimates that last time Clinton played the Warfield, he didn’t appear until after one in the morning, although the band did play until 3 a.m.
If I’m worried about Clinton’s whereabouts, no one else is. For most concertgoers, the mothership is more music and fanciful fashion, not Clinton and band mythology. This crowd moves freely and often between the upstairs and downstairs bar, entering and reentering to groove and dance between drinks. I begin to wonder if they know who Clinton is. Five minutes before midnight and ready to write off the master of ceremonies, I return to my seat for the balloon drop.
As I retake my seat, Clinton, adorned in a rainbow mullet, walks onto the stage to the largest cheers of the evening. The band launches into “Give Up The Funk”, and all is forgiven. The balloons drop. People scream “Happy New Year,” dance, and drink. Curiously, the concert continues on autopilot, even with Clinton. Clinton’s presence seems largely that of an impresario, preaching small bits of the Bop Gun bible from albums past to cue intros from various band members. Clinton does very little entertaining, choosing to let his younger band members take center stage, for better or worse. The next ninety minutes of the concert are slow rising climaxes that often get bogged down in segment-less jams devoid of any change in emotion, energy, or voice. While the groove is in full force, it is too much of a good thing, and concertgoers begin exiting well before show’s end. The extended jams become too extensive, the nods in the direction of classic P-punk tunes are too few, and the wonders of New Year’s Eve outside The Warfield are too much. After midnight, a steady exodus makes its way onto the streets of San Francisco for the next party. I exit with them an hour later, returning to the outlandish and entertaining street performers who ask for one-percent of what P-funk asked for. Yes, it is certainly noble of P-funk to keep it fresh and not simply roll out their hits, but can they be P-funk without the mythology implied through their hits. Can there be outer space without “Mothership Connection” or “Funkentelechy”? Can there be an earth politic without “Chocolate City”? Perhaps it is the times, not P-funk, that have changed. Chocolate Cities and freed minds-and-booties are perhaps saved or un-savable by 2009, leaving only the music, not the message, in a P-funk performance. But without the mythology to guide both the band and the audience on a journey, the spirit of the mothership seems diminished.
The concert, originally advertised as Parliament/Funkadelic Versus the Greyboy Allstars, required both bands for a perfect evening. While the Allstars provided an up-tempo and constantly changing evening of mood and dance, P-funk provided the carnivalesque anything-must-happen atmosphere. A perfect duel, song-by-song, would have been preferable, letting in the best of both bands early. Instead, with longer drawn-out sets, the match-up became a draw not between high-energy bands, but between the bands and their own repetitive styles, and between the bands and the higher energy, thrill-seeking crowd. In the end, the duel may have been the bands versus New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, with the mothership letting people escape into the street to continue the invasion.