It can seem like music today divides continuously into ever-narrower niches. Among the various genre choices on Spotify right now, you will find categories for “catstep,” “drone folk,” “fidget house,” and “skweee.” But back when vinyl was all that people had (and not yet a retro cliché fetish marketed by Urban Outfitters), the opposite was true. Varieties of popular music as distinct as doo wop, blues, rock, salsa, reggae, and gospel blended into new forms that were more about celebrating the mixture than separating specific sounds one from another. This Sunday, May 27, War and George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, two of the groups that dominated that extended era of musical promiscuity, will touch down at the Santa Barbara Bowl. When they hit the stage, expect a nonstop sound storm of riotous, richly textured music that continues to defy categories even as it defines one very big one — the mothership known as funk.
Speaking with Lonnie Jordan, original member and longtime keyboard wizard of War, I learned that his immense musical vocabulary stems from the habit of keeping an open mind. Asked how he feels when he hears contemporary dance tracks that sample his classic funk anthems, he answered without hesitation: “I love it. So many samples, covers, and commercials have used the music, and I think it’s great. I mean, I can hear the difference, and a lot of the samples are not really what we did; they’re something new; but I’m not like the guys back in the 1970s who rejected the rock guitar sound that was new then. I like to embrace changes in the music.” Jordan described what it’s like when a whole crowd starts Shazam-ing at the same time trying to find the title to something they recognize from the band’s catalog, like “Spill the Wine” or “Slippin’ into Darkness.” “I call them the oxygen masks,” he said, referring to the way people hold their smartphones when using voice-activated apps. Responding to the news that his co-headliner George Clinton has announced that this would be his last tour, Jordan said that “however that may be, I’m not retiring any time soon. That word, ‘retire,’ just looks like ‘tired’ to me; putting ‘re’ in front of it only makes things worse.” Jordan’s recommendation for the Memorial Day weekend crowd at the Bowl? “Bring plenty of water, ’cuz the stage will be smokin’.”
The other half of this titanic night needs no introduction, but let’s do it anyway. George Clinton, mastermind behind Parliament Funkadelic and always-outrageous keeper of the funk flame, recently said that he’s ready to stop touring and let his band do the work of securing his legacy. In April, Clinton told Billboard, “Truth be told, it’s never really been about me. It’s always been about the music and the band. That’s the real P-Funk legacy. They’ll still be funkin’ long after I stop.” And what a legacy it is. Two songs in particular, Parliament’s 1977 hit “Flashlight” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” (1978), stand out as perhaps the greatest dance singles ever recorded — as propulsive as “Good Times,” as funky as “Sex Machine,” and as uplifting as “I’ll Take You There,” they encapsulate everything that was messianic about the popular music of the period. Even if Clinton isn’t interested in doing it much longer, you can be sure that come Sunday, he’ll be more than happy to hit you with his bop gun.