This was one Magic City Classic kickoff under a groove of funk and funky politics
It’s not everyday that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and funk legend George Clinton is a headlining act for a free concert, but those arriving into Birmingham for the 75th annual Magic City Classic, a milestone year for the HBCU gridiron showdown held regularly on Halloween weekend, that’s what they got. Presented by the Birmingham City Council with most of the organization credit going to District 1 LaShunda Scales, the free concert felt like a mini-revival of the city’s now-defunct Southern Heritage Festival, which ironically was overseen by Scales’ father, John Ray. The late-’90’s and early 2000s festival made a name for itself for being an annual destination for legendary R&B and funk lovers, so those arriving on the parking lot of the coveted Legion Field, home to some of Coach Bear Bryant’s biggest victories and original site of the Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl, were treated with musical flashbacks to yesteryear.
As expected, the event’s first scheduled artist didn’t hit the stage at the announced showtime of 6 pm. After a hour or so of listening to a DJ mixing on the 1s and 2s, Logan the Entertainer finally took to the stage around 7:30 with a down-memory-lane set full of R&B medleys. In between covers of Frankie Beverly’s biggest crowd pleaders, the locks-wearing crooner executed a hit parade of today’s jams, including Beyonce’s “Formation,” T-Pain’s “Classic Man” and Big Moochie’s urban line-dancing sensation “Biker Shuffle.”
When a few long segments from the event sponsors and more DJ intermissions from 98.7 KISS FM personality Chris Coleman and Butch Hardy concluded, Ohio synth funk band Zapp took the stage. With acrobatic circus pizzazz, big showmanship and musical exercises that seemed like carbon copies of the original recordings, the old school brigade founded by the late Roger Troutman leap through uptempo jams like “I Can Make You Dance,” “More Bounce to the Ounce,” “Do Waa Ditty” and their electro cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Only major exception to the rule: “Computer Love” was sung in a lower, diminished key. They managed to slow things down with a few of their memorable ballads, including “I Wanna Be Your Man.” At times, the performances were a bit soggy, drowning with too much talking in between, subpar lead vocals on “I Wanna Be Your Man” and obvious track instrumentation support. After a confetti explosion into the crowd, Lester Troutman’s swagger-stroked drum solo, a laser suit show, lots of dialogue and a pimp-esque wardrobe change, they closed their extended set with the 2Pac jam “California Love,” which Troutman originally guested on. All in all, Zapp was good, a flashy, highfalutin showcase of the elements Bruno Mars borrowed for his ‘Uptown Funk’ odyssey.
After another DJ set, more of Scales’ political grandstanding and a summoning of Omega Psi Phi frat boys to the front at George Clinton’s request, the latest assembly of Parliament/Funkadelic along with a dread-less George Clinton bursts unto the stage with “Atomic Dog.” The song was Clinton’s biggest solo hit, and one that has been enshrined by Que dogs all around the world. And in grand P-funk fashion, the dapper funk king masterfully led his coalition through the Parliament-Funkadelic canon by expanding familiar radio hits into exploratory funk-rock odysseys. “Flash Light” became a ten-minute orgasmic celebration. By the song’s end, Clinton kissed to the audience as if he was departing for good. It was a scare tactic that left many fans feeling duped.
Then suddenly, the funk ambassador went hard into “Knee Deep,” shouldered by a P-Funk cast member doing Phillipe Wynne’s memorable, infectious ad-libs. And for a full hour, on what was announced also as Clinton’s 75th birthday, the hits and funky shenanigans kept coming: “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “Mothership Connection” were all on display. Unlike the last two appearances Clinton and P-Funk have made in Birmingham
, this set list seemed a bit more adventurous, thanks to the inclusion of a few rarities like the oath-carrying “Everything Is On the One” and more jazz-rock jam band clusters mostly led by Michael Hampton’s guitar spells. During the set’s explosive climax, “Tom’s Diner” was even interjected, led by Clinton’s agile leaps and constant shouts — all of this powered by a living legend proving that age ain’t nothing but a number.
The only major grievances, aside from the very long timeline of events, was the high levels of shade tossing from politicians and the constant religious references. The “get out and vote” talk was respectful and necessary, but the selfish need to politicize the event was a gross mistake. No mentioning of the city’s mayor, William A. Bell, throughout the whole affair just shows just how animus things have gotten between the some of the members serving on the present council and the sitting mayor. Also, while tossing out the old adage that “sisters are doing it for themselves, Scales’ subliminal message of pro-black empowerment alongside Tyson seemed liked jabs at the other women on the council (the other two women, Valerie Abbott and Kim Rafferty are white, and were not in attendance). All of this seemed like a silly ploy to drum up votes for the next citywide election.
Also, assuming everyone at the highly-attended funk party to be Christian was pretty unfair to other religious beliefs and the rest of society. But in the hands of Scales and Hoyt, who both declared they were ministers of the gospel, this was their extended pulpit to preach their good news. It seems that we still haven’t learned where that invisible line is that causes the separation between church and state.