George Clinton on the Mall

“Can you believe this?” George Clinton called out to the crowd on the Washington Mall.

The man who once sang “Paint the White House Black” was now singing “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” for the flagship concert of the 2012 Folklife Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian. This particular concert Wednesday was co-sponsored by the impending National Museum of African American History and Culture, whose cranes were nearby on the former green of the Washington Monument.

So even before the cornerstone was laid, he was singing about roves and fires, no wonder his mind was blown.

Yet the psychedelic grandfather look he’s been affecting for decades was all gone. Instead of long grey locks dyed the colors of the rainbow and the tie-dyed sheet he used to wear as a kind of funky toga, he was in a natty double-breasted tan suit with tie, sharp straw hat, short hair, and trimmed black beard.

He looked less like Sun Ra than he did Cedric the Entertainer.

But that hardly mattered. In what was the shortest set time he’s been allowed in years – one hour flat, he fit in only a handful of Parliament/Funkadelic anthems, from “Flashlight” to “Atomic Dog,” each stretched out 10 minutes or so, with one of dozens of solists.

Host Tom Joyner said there was a cast of 42 and he wasn’t far off. Aside from the crack funky band and horn men, there were singers, dancers, contortionists, rappers, a roller skating woman who also sang and several people who may just have climbed on stage to take part in the chaos.

The cameras set up for the large video screens for the overflow audience (and online audience at home) couldn’t keep up with the sheer variety of things going on. A camera stayed on a solist while a shirtless guy with wings stood on his hands and then set down so he sat on his chest. It was like Funk du Soleil.

If Clinton’s role was the Godfather of goings on before, he was now the mayor, starting anthems and often disappearing, only to reappear and bellow his lines like a beached seal or in the sped-up falsetto of his records (was he hitting the helium backstage).

He kept shouting out to D.C., before switching and calling it C.C. for its former name Chocolate City. All races responded to his universal music, though, which was part of the reason no doubt it headlined the Folk Fest.

If you read the materials for the show, you’d think the presentation was going to be more of a seminar, with Joyner talking with performers in between occasional performances. Instead it was a straight up concert, with Joyner doing little more than introducing film on the new museum between sets.

Just as well. Ivan Neville and his band Dumpstaphunk brought a New Orleans flavor to the proceedings with strong musicianship led by a driving female drummer.

MeShell Ndgeocello seemed quite a big name to open the show, but her mellow approach to funk suited the early evening picnics of barbecue.

The Folklife Festival continues to July 7.

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