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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Review: George Clinton: From Indiana Avenue to the Mothership, the best of Parliament-Funkadelic in Naptown

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In 2019, George Clinton announced that he was retiring from the stage. Parliament-Funkadelic’s farewell tour ended in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. But at some point during the COVID-19 shutdown, Clinton had a change of heart. In March of 2022, Clinton announced that his beloved P-Funk crew would return to the road.

Parliament-Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove” tour arrived in Indianapolis on June 25 at Butler’s Clowes Memorial Hall. Any fears that the band might be rusty from sitting the last couple years out were instantly dispelled. Clinton and his crew hit the stage with a vengeance. After warming things up with some newer material, Clinton led the band through a jubilant setlist of fan favorites, including “Flashlight,” “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” “One Nation Under A Groove,” “Cosmic Slop” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child).” The near-capacity audience was on its feet throughout the entire performance.

The concert was a powerful reminder of Clinton’s unique artistic genius, as the band effortlessly synthesized the history of African-American music into a cohesive whole, touching on jazz, gospel, soul, hip-hop and rock and roll.

There’s some ambiguity as to whether the current P-Funk tour will be the group’s last. Clinton is currently 80 years old, so it’s reasonable to question how much longer he can comfortably withstand the rigors of life on the road. With that possibility in mind, it’s a good time to look back at a few highlights from Parliament-Funkadelic’s long history in Naptown.

Clinton made his first appearance in Indianapolis on Nov. 19, 1967, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds’ Coliseum. His group, The Parliaments, had just scored its first hit with “(I Wanna) Testify.” The Parliaments appeared at the Coliseum as part of a package tour that featured the pioneering comedian Moms Mabley as headliner.

Clinton had been using the Parliaments name since 1956. He formed the group as a teenager in Plainfield, New Jersey. The original Parliaments specialized in doo-wop music and cut its first single, “Poor Willie,” in 1959. The modern version of Parliament, and its spin-off group, Funkadelic, started taking shape in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s Parliament-Funkadelic had perfected its innovative mix of psychedelic rock and funky soul music.

The full Parliament-Funkadelic collective made its first stop in Indianapolis on July 29, 1971, at the legendary 20 Grand Club, formerly located at the intersection of 34th and Illinois streets. Clinton and P-Funk were booked for a three-night stand at 20 Grand, including a special all-ages Saturday matinee for teenagers.

At that time, 20 Grand was arguably the hottest club in Naptown. It featured some of the biggest acts in soul music, including The O’Jays, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, The Ohio Players, Bobby Womack, Millie Jackson, Rufus Thomas, Gene Chandler, and others. The 20 Grand also hosted Indianapolis’ first Player’s Ball, and a Miss Black Indianapolis pageant.

Clinton’s next Indianapolis appearance ranks as one of the most unique. Just a year after releasing its psychedelic magnum opus, “Maggot Brain,” in 1972, Parliament-Funkadelic was booked for a July 15 date at the Walker Theatre. That’s right, Clinton and the P-Funk crew performed on Indiana Avenue at the height of its psychedelic glory.

During a brief interview before the concert at Clowes, I asked Clinton if he recalled performing at the historic Avenue venue. “I don’t know,” Clinton laughed. “I was out of my mind back then. If you remember, you weren’t there.”

By the mid-‘70s, P-Funk had amassed a fanatic cult audience. As the band’s fan base grew, so did the size of the venues the group played. From the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s, P-Funk made several stops at newly opened downtown facilities like the convention center and Market Square Arena.

It was a March 16, 1978, date at Market Square Arena that prompted P-Funk’s most unusual Indianapolis performance. The concert was co-sponsored by Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, in an effort to promote the organization’s Excel scholarship program. The promotional campaign included a contest — Parliament-Funkadelic would play a concert for the Indianapolis high school that collected the most votes.

On the afternoon of March 15, Parliament-Funkadelic assembled in the gym of Broad Ripple High School to perform for the students. I asked Clinton about the concert during a 2016 interview. “We tore the joint up,” he recalled. “The teachers were out there dancing just like the kids.”

The late 1970s were undoubtedly the high point in Parliament-Funkadelic’s history as a live band. These were no ordinary concerts. In 1976, Clinton reimagined the group’s live show as a surrealistic space opera, featuring elaborate stage props like the iconic Mothership, a massive spaceship that descended onstage during performances.

The Mothership, and other legendary P-Funk stage props, were fabricated by Indianapolis’ own Tom Battista. Today, Battista is known locally as the restaurateur behind popular eateries like Bluebeard. But in the mid-‘70s, Battista was working as a stagehand and carpenter.

A replica of the original Mothership is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Sadly, the original was sent to a scrapyard in the early ‘80s. But a smaller version that Battista fabricated, known as the Baby Mothership, is on display here in Indianapolis. You can view the Baby Mothership, and other original P-Funk props, at the Museum of Psychphonics in Fountain Square.

In 2016, I arranged for Clinton to visit the Museum of Psychphonics. I asked what his thoughts were on viewing the exhibit. “It’s like visiting one of my children that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Clinton laughed.

If the concert at Clowes Hall was indeed Parliament-Funkadelic’s last in the city, Clinton has certainly left behind a substantial history in Indianapolis. I have no doubt that tales of P-Funk’s exploits in Naptown will remain part of the local music lore for many years to come.

Kyle Long is a DJ and hosts two radio shows, “Cultural Manifesto” and “Echoes of Indiana Avenue,” on WFYI. Connect with him on Twitter @djkylelong.

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