Perhaps a show like this is best experienced as a recording.
Sometimes a bad concert can give you the kind of thrill that you can’t get from a good show. The moment a band stops giving a shit about playing the right notes or respecting the crowd, the veneer of performance vanishes and the stars reveal themselves as mere humans, as lazy and loutish as us. James Brown or David Byrne may seem superhuman with their costumes and choreography and endless wells of stamina. But when Iggy Pop harangues the audience on Metallic K.O., we know we’re dealing with someone who scratches his ass and eats chips on the couch.
First released in 1996, Funkadelic Live: Meadowbrook, Rochester, Michigan 12th September 1971 documents such a “bad” show. George Clinton insists in his stage banter that his band is not from this earth, but he recording suggests otherwise. They’re clearly wasted; they can barely start their own songs, preferring instead to noodle as Clinton yells ad-libs to get into the spirit, at one point yelling “pussy” about 20 times in a row. These are not gods but humans.
The group wasn’t always this sloppy. Clinton had just hired two new musicians shortly before the gig and had practiced with them maybe once, if at all. But P-Funk as a train wreck is just as entertaining as the more manicured P-Funk of Parliament’s Live: P-Funk Earth Tour. Even if he forgets his own jargon (“lemme slide a yard of tongue in your… mind,” he says, mixing up two of his lines), Clinton’s as funny here as on any of his records.
The music’s great too; this show was hot on the heels of Maggot Brain, Funkadelic’s best album. In fact, the Meadowbrook version of “Maggot Brain,” one of the great guitar jams, may be better than the studio cut. The band plays with the subtlety of a high school garage band, which is better for the song than the more restrained, comparatively calm studio arrangement. Eddie Hazel’s guitar is still the focus, but as the song creeps on, other instruments start making noise, and by the end they’re all wailing away in a ghostly choir. Despite the 14-minute length, the song feels fleeter than the studio version.
Clinton doesn’t start singing for more than 20 minutes, but when he does – on a version of “I Call My Baby Pussycat” that’s nearly as long as “Maggot Brain” – he’s in feral mode, his yowls frighteningly like a real tomcat. He makes farting and kissy noises for most of the rest of the song as the backing vocalists – the only musicians who sound rehearsed – croon under the din of a truly unhinged vocal performance.
Another keeper is a titanic 15-minute “All Your Goodies Are Gone.” It starts out slow and uncertain, but the band works with it, and it turns into a sort of creeping ambient piece. At times it’s easy to forget what song it is. It goes on for so long that even the crescendo at the end slips to the back of the mind. But this isn’t to the song’s detriment. It’s the abyss at the album’s middle, and it gives the arc of the set list a bit of extra depth. The album never really recovers once it’s done, but it’s worth sticking around until the end to see how it all collapses.
Perhaps a show like this is best experienced as a recording. Bassist Billy “Bass” Nelson walked offstage in the middle of the last song, a crude version of “Free Your Mind (And Your Ass Will Follow).” Watching these guys agonize can’t have been terribly fun for the audience, and it can’t have been easy to dance, either. But it’s a rare treat to hear something as truly off-the-chain. Most live recordings aim to capture bands at the peak of their powers. To hear one at rock bottom can be just as fun.