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Feeling the Funk: U of C's Dorkadelica

They gave up the secrets of the atom, but can they give up the funk?

George Clinton and his P-Funk All-Stars headlined this year's Summer Breeze, the University of Chicago's annual private outdoor party, on Saturday night. One thing to avoid here, because it's misleading, is the funk-dork comparison. Saturday was the first time I'd ever seen a Wikipedia T-shirt, a Very Large Array T-shirt, or a "The Gates" t-shirt, but the truth is that even students at a prestigious university have a way of melding nerdiness into passable coolness. On the U of C's campus, one sees all the normal college types, from the squirmy dork types to the kinda-skanky precocious beauties, and lots of neutral-looking cargo shorts-and-sandals boys and casually dignified girls in between. Remember, most of these people had to survive high school.

Walking around the campus before the show opened, I felt like I was on any one of the other college campuses I've visited. Students lined up at booths to buy hamburgers and get their faces painted, or played around in a few of those inflatable bounce-houses (see, even U of C kids can act like toddlers!). A couple of students pranced around on a small stage and sang to some pre-recorded beats (think Dismemberment Plan and Postal Service collaborating after a severe stroke). I sat down in a nearby quad and soon got hit with a Frisbee.

As students started filtering in to the courtyard, the familiarity hit me even harder, beaming me so many weeks back to my own college days. Here were all the personality and style staples, churning my memory: The guy in flattened dreds and a Jack Johnson T-shirt; guys my age wearing deck shoes; the budding politician in chinos and a conservative dress shirt; scruffy young men greeting each other with muscular, stiff-backed handshakes. As a student at Northwestern, I used to take them for granted, especially at the annual Dillo Day outdoor concert and smaller concert-hall performances by artists like Rufus Wainwright. As sometimes happened at Northwestern, the U of C's activities board adamantly kept Summer Breeze private, even refusing outside press (I ended up buying a ticket through a student), and only now did I understand the result: A concert full of people who didn't seem to belong at concerts.

The less than a thousand kids who attended the show, in a fairly small courtyard behind the student union, had the bands to themselves, and I think that's where most of the enthusiasm came from. Sure, they showed plenty of enthusiasm for the music itself, but it often waned, and much of it depended on very specific conditions. All the artists had a fair number of fans in the crowd, but for the most part, college audiences don't come to college shows just to see the specific artists. They come because it's basically a party thrown just for them. If they enjoy the music itself, it's because they can break it down into a few specific elements they can relate to. I doubt they liked P-Funk enough to pay three or four times the student price ($15) and ride a bus for an hour to see them somewhere else.

Growing up with a generation that's compacted Dave Matthews, Bob Marley, Phish, and countless rap and soul artists into one crude and vague category, I realize that high school and college kids will dig anything they can associate with smoking pot and/or raunchy sex. And if funk's not about pot and raunchy sex, with a friendly glaze of universal love, then it's not about anything.

On the other hand, the Maroonies liked supporting DJ RJD2's concoctions insofar as they sounded like ballin' and clubbin' music, and they liked opener Dar Williams's songs for their coy suggestions of weirdness. Williams sounds so much like a cutesy open-mic singer in Purgatory that that's really all there is to enjoy, by the way. Songs like "Babysitter's Here" (about a hippie babysitter) are about as fun as listening to your friend tell you about this really weird David Sedaris story he heard about from his other friend.

Getting back to pot, it wasn't until about two hours into the show, during RJD2's set, that the smoke of a joint floated over from somewhere inside the crowd. The dancing was even more lame. Granted, RJD2 would be hard to dance to anyway, as he's constantly shifting between dozens of rhythms and hooks during his near-continuous set, but the students didn't attempt anything beyond brief little joke dances. In other words, dancing was something to do for 10 seconds and giggle about for 30. The whole evening, I only saw one couple bumping and grinding - a pair of chunky lesbians near the back of the crowd.

RJD2's set reminded me of a private Zwan/Queens of the Stone Age concert I attended at Northwestern in 2003. As the Queens ripped into their set, about 100 people near the stage started thrashing. Behind us, about a thousand Northwestern kids stood deathly still, and someone screamed "YOU SUCK!" at Nick Oliveri as he screeched out the lyrics to "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire."

Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that the Queens are "so concerned with pleasing themselves with what they play that they don't give a damn for the audience," but that's what makes them fun. The P-Funk are just the opposite. Despite the musical talent they cram onstage, they put most of their effort into the usual crowd-rousing techniques: call-and-response; "HOW YA DOIN' CHICAGO! SAY WHAT?"; getting people to clap their hands to the beat; wearing costumes that included a diaper and massive red and white fur coats and hats; admittedly awesome 10-minute guitar solos; and advocating sex, pot and fashionable political positions.

Clinton seemed fiercely determined to make the students participate. The crowd usually delivered during the many call-and-response sessions, especially when it came to the more familiar and catchy party-funk singles.

CLINTON: To the window! To the walls! Till The sweat run down my balls! [Holds microphone out to audience]

STUDENT HORDE: Gee-gee-gee-gee-gee-gee-god-damn! Gee-gee-gee-gee-gee-gee-god-damn!

But when the audience failed to respond, Clinton shushed his backup singers, repeated his part, and angrily stabbed his microphone back out toward the audience. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but he seriously looked pissed the few times this happened.

There was really only one moment of drama for the picky Funkadelic fan: A 10-minute performance of "Maggot Brain," a heroic guitar solo that begins, on the album Maggot Brain, with this incantation from Clinton: "Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y'all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe, and I was not offended, for I knew I had to rise above it all, or drown in my own shit." Unlike P-Funk's many infectious party slogans, this did not raise a holler, familiar as it must be to many Clinton fans. One can't expect everybody else to enjoy music in a specific way, but it's discouraging when an audience wants to be entertained without being surprised or intrigued.

If the activities board had sold, say, a couple hundred tickets to the general public, the courtyard would have been packed and the streets outside crawling with fans trying to scrape up tickets. If this Marie Antoinette audience must play milkmaid for a day, why not let some peasants in to enrich the experience? The U of C crowd didn't quite manage to fill up the modest square in front of the stage. Which also makes the board's refusal to issue press passes seem exceedingly absurd. Sure, it's their business if they want to arrange a private event. But why flag down the Mothership if you can't give it a fitting welcome?


Posted on May 23, 2006

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