We went to another free concert, Sunday sunset by La Grande Arche de la Défense. People were sitting on the grass and the steps laughing and chatting and drinking beer. The support act was Keziah Jones, a Nigerian guy with a guitar and two percussionists, playing acoustic funk and bantering with the crowd in English and French as the sun went down through the arch. He told Paris he loved them, he always had and he always would, and they whooped and cheered and loved him back.
That fit the mood perfectly, but what followed created its own surreal weather. Like some souped-up monster truck straight from the 1970s, all fins and white wall tyres and stick shift on the steering columm, the P-funk machine came roaring onto the stage in a blue cloud of psychedelic synths and pure hard-ass American funk. No compromises to the world music ethos here beyond the occasional holler of “mercy bowkoo Pariss!” The rhythm section, the keyboard guy and no less than four guitarists kicked off by laying down a six-minute slab of grinding rock, before the small army of backing singers set to shrieking and wailing, and finally George Clinton himself, one month short of seventy and acclaimed in the French press as the only one of the original pantheon of funk (James Brown, Sly Stone) still left standing, shambled onstage like an old bear, dressed all in black and wearing an admiral’s cap. Beyond a few throaty co-ordinating growls and grunts at the mike (though at one point he had the whole crowd chanting “we got us some o’ that doodoo! We got us some o’that sheeit!”), he mostly wandered around wearing a giant grin, pointing to his musicians as they did their solo thang, and raising the crowd in cheering them on. How many of them there were is anyone’s guess: I counted at least three alternating drummers and two bassists, while the horn section, numbering between two and six at any given time, kept rotating personnel, and at one point there were around six women dancing and harmonizing in the middle of the stage in addition to the regular complement of two men and two women gyrating and singing backup. For most of the show there was a well-toned black guy in a long wig, white frilly trousers and a white feather boa shaking his stuff all over the stage and on top of the amp stack, while at one point George introduced his granddaughter to deliver a (lethal) rap about skank. Towards the end I spotted an executioner standing, arms folded, at the back of the stage. But there was no doubt who was the main man here. Upon close observation it became clear that he was wearing a bra under his admiral’s cap with the ends dangling down over his ears; during the finale he took it off, swang it around a few times, then engaged in a duel of lingerie with one of his backing singers who had himself produced one from somewhere.
At times it seemed more like some deranged and slightly disturbing cult (“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time!”) than a musical ensemble, but it was unquestionably funk of the highest, most mesmerizing order too (“this is what we do!”). It was all there: bow wow wow, yippie yiy yippe yay (hilariously overlaid with “how much is that doggie in the window?”), Flash Light (the electric spanking of war babies), we got the funk, we’re going to get funked up…all, that is, except for One Nation Under a Groove, which he presumably played but we missed because we had to leave after the first encore when they looked like they were in the mood to go on all night (“the p-funk party don’t stop!”) and we had to make the last train.
maybe the most cheering thing about it, though, was the audience: one nation of all shades of white and black and brown partying together in good humor as the scent of ganja wafted through the evening air; the rainbow France that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, but on a mellow buzz. It would have been unthinkable when I was young that so many people in their 20s would go to let it all out at a gig by a musician approaching his 70th birthday; if someone had told me back when I was 17 and getting on down to One Nation on the dance floor at Annabella’s disco by Harrogate station, that in my 50th year I would be getting funked up by one of the great Paris arches (then yet unbuilt) with a crowd of people half my age and a third of George Clinton’s, I would have thought their vision as fantastical as any Funkadelic mothership, but I would also have been very pleased…