At a spry 76 years of age, Kannapolis native George Clinton is something like funk’s emeritus professor. On the tail end of an amazing career’s worth of gargantuan cultural contributions, he doesn’t perform so much as preside nowadays. And yet the good doctor is still cooler than most of his students, with a trick or two left to teach the youngsters about how it’s done.
Saturday night brought Clinton and his long-running P-Funk All Stars to Durham’s Carolina Theatre, as part of the fourth annual Art of Cool Festival that also included Common, Rakim, Rapsody and other stars from the nexus of hip-hop, funk, jazz and r&b. As someone who combines all those elements and more, Clinton is pretty much the art of cool personified.
His set clocked in at a riotous, draining two-plus hours that was exhausting simply because you just couldn’t not move to this stuff. Around 20 people came and went over the course of the performance, appearing onstage to shake a tail feather, sing, dance, maybe solo a bit and, above all else, get funky. The musicianship on display was incredible throughout, especially the metallic-funk tones of dreadlocked guitarist Garrett Shider.
As for the man himself, Clinton sang and danced a little, and exhorted the crowd a lot. But mostly he just took in the whole extravagant spectacle with a broad grin, often sitting on a spinning stool back by the drums (or even holding up a microphone for the horn players as they soloed).
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But it came across less as conducting than conjuring. Clinton cooked up his funk empire close to 50 years ago, and it seems like all he has to do is wave a figurative wand to set the music in unstoppable motion. Truly, the groove will abide.
Preceding Clinton onstage was Terrace Martin, best-known for his star turn on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He led a virtuosic quartet through sprawling jams, working up to crescendos that exploded into what sounded like four simultaneous solos that somehow meshed perfectly.
Martin’s one mistake was to ask the crowd, “Whassup, Art of Cool, Raleigh, North Carolina?” The hometown Durham crowd corrected him and Martin quickly apologized, later atoning for the faux pas by leading the audience in a “Happy Birthday” singalong for Art of Cool president/co-founder Cicely Mitchell.
Then it was star time, as Clinton entered the stage in a white trench coat and fur-covered cowboy hat. The set was pretty much one long groove from start to finish, with snatches of different songs popping up throughout. But they did get to most of the milestones you’d expect — “Up for the Down Stroke,” “Atomic Dog,” “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Flashlight” and “We Want the Funk” among them.
And the funk was indeed given up.