Behold the Gospel Of Funk! In which we understand funk as a galactic force, a vast and free-flowing stream of information and instigation that suffuses the universe. We humble humans are occasionally lucky enough to tap into its juice, to comprehend even a tiny sliver of its magnitude and ride the funk into our Earthly version of cosmic union. In this way, funk is like love. In fact, funk is love.
I know this is true because the Doctor told me so.
He was there at the Hollywood Bowl last night, Dr. Funkenstein, aka the Atomic Dog, aka George Clinton, a bearded, bespectacled, and rotund presence in a Creamsicle-colored silk bathrobe. Among a sprawl of 20 or so musicians, dancers, and hangers-on, Clinton conducted a 45-minute set that closed the first portion of a four-hour, five-band celebration that was more mini-festival than standard concert.
Billed Brainfeeder At The Bowl, the event was orchestrated by Flying Lotus, the musician born Steven Ellison who runs the Brainfeeder record label. Ellison recently announced that he’s releasing Funkadelic’s next album on Brainfeeder sometime next year. Like a good acolyte, he’s spreading the good news, perpetuating the funk. And he brought it to the Bowl — a gleaming-white amphitheater that last night shone like a monument under LA’s pristine night sky — to share with the people.
With Clinton as spiritual leader and Flying Lotus as electrified shaman, Brainfeeder At The Bowl also featured bass wizard Thundercat’s soul-jazz trio, plus hip-hop-inflected sound sculptors Shabazz Palaces and manic-eclectic DJ/producer the Gaslamp Killer.
Each plied their own version of the funk, beholden as much to Clinton as an ineffable higher power. Their combined forces elevated the Hollywood Bowl into a kind of mind-expanding engine revving some 17,000 individual pistons, a nearly sold-out crowd. Nowhere else but L.A. would this local-centric lineup fill so many seats.
“The best thing about tonight is connecting all these universes together,” Ellison told the crowd midway through his hourlong headlining set. He played from a podium ensconced between two giant screens, unseen except in silhouette, with projection-mapped visuals blasting swirling geometry onto the soaring arches of the Bowl’s bandshell.
Of all the performances, his was the most far-ranging. It followed a trajectory familiar to anyone experienced in psychedelic drugs, starting with a series of languid, introspective movements that were equally beautiful and unnerving and inscrutable. Ellison’s beats were based in hip-hop and they spun with slick, roller-skating grace or a lolling, off-kilter kathump reminiscent of a flat tire on a city street. For a good 30 seconds he unloaded a bassline that consumed all the air in the place like some kind of barometric pressure drop. He played a noisy, crunchy new tune that he said is coming out next week. “Los Angeles, ride shotgun with me,” he said, referring to his habit of testing his new material by bumping it REAL LOUD while cruising his hometown.
From Cosmogramma and Til The Quiet Comes tracks he transitioned into songs from last year’s You’re Dead!, and here the sound and visuals went sinister. “I’m making a movie right now,” he told the crowd, “and it’s a different life. Everyone is terrified of me. I showed it to people and they’re like, ‘This is unique, but I’m terrified.'” If you’ve seen Ellison’s horror-porn short film, Royal, you know dude has a penchant for the deeply disturbing. He stalked out from behind the screen and rapped as his Capt. Murphy alter ego, strutting along the catwalk that spanned into the first few rows of the crowd.
Retreating to his hidden console, Ellison reversed the bad trip: “Since George killed it earlier you wanna hear some funky shit?” From there he dropped his version of a couple Funkadelic tracks, plus “King Kunta” and “Wesley’s Theory” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly — songs that he produced and which Thundercat and George Clinton play on.
Back to Clinton: His pre-headlining set was muddy at first, with members of his family (literal) swarming to sing, rap and generally rouse the crowd for 30 minutes of new material that leaned toward the bracing funk-rock that Fishbone, another LA-based crew of funk alchemists, was known for in the late ’90s. It wasn’t until the second half, when they dove into an ecstatic medley of hits — “Not Just Knee Deep,” “Give Up The Funk,” “Atomic Dog,” “Flashlight” — that the band tightened up and hit its prodigious stride. Here Clinton seemed most animated, variously rolling around the stage in what looked like a desk chair from Office Depot or strutting around waving his hands like an air-traffic controller.
Earlier, Thundercat, the bassist born Stephen Bruner in South Central LA, played a dizzying set of ferocious fusion. His trio was dizzying in its effortless brilliance. Alongside keyboardist Dennis Hamm, Stephen’s brother Ron Bruner, Jr. was on drums, flexing the serious jazz pedigree that’s landed him tours with Wayne Shorter and Stanley Clark. (Keep in mind that this is a family of three Grammy-nominated brothers, including youngest Jameel of the Internet.) Bruner flaunted a double-necked bass — six strings on top, four on the bottom that he never touched — that probably weighed 40 lbs. and sang along to his nimble thrumming in a gentle voice halfway between George Duke and Michael McDonald.
Speaking of McDonald: Bruner certainly knew his audience. He brought out McDonald — “I’m serious!,” he said. “It’s Michael McDonald!” — perhaps the most soulful white male vocalist on the planet, and their version of “What A Fool Believes” triggered the first spontaneous dance party of the night.
Shabazz Palaces played an entrancing set of ghostly beats and analog percussion, Tendai Maraire alternative between shekere, congas, tom drums, and mbira while Ishmael Butler, sporting a gray beard, lined hair, reflective eyeshade visor, and the shapeliest shoulders in hip-hop, rapped in mystical riddles: “Certain things need not be asked.” For a band that takes care to contour every set into unprecedented shapes, their 30 minutes weren’t enough to fully establish their brilliance.
Thoughout the night, FlyLo, Gaslamp Killer and Thundercat all shouted out family from the stage. For musicians who grew up not far from this stage, playing the Bowl is possibly the mightiest possible achievement in a musical career. To have moms and dads and grandparents present further demonstrated the legacy that Brainfeeder has established. Theirs is a continuum of funk.
By 10:45, the night’s appointed curfew, Ellison cut the music and spoke to the crowd, the whole Bowl radiant under the house lights. “I’m glad to be a messenger,” he said. “That is my main mission on this Earth.”