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That's not to say he isn't still relevant. The man's fusion of funk and metal, everything black and white and gray, gave rise to a generation of musicians suckled on the sampler, and when he played the South by Southwest music festival last month, he packed the mammoth Austin Music Hall to capacity. Maybe there'd have been more room if he tore the roof off the muthasucker.
But like most pioneers, Clinton stood at his peak when there was no one else standing beside him. After listening as his sound was co-opted by myriad other musicians--in the white-boy freaky-style funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the gangsta woof-woof of Snoop Doggy Dogg, even the king-of-Chocolate-City groove of Prince--Clinton has been forced to keep up. It's always frustrating when a leader finds himself following his own crowd, and it's no different for a certified genius like Clinton. And then there's the small question of how an artist can keep pace with his own greatness. Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and so many other influential musicians of the past continue to record, but you often wonder if they've run out of genius; each new record sounds like each old one, until finally it all sounds like formula. They may still be great, but how can you tell when the old echoes keep drowning out the similar new sound? Same goes for Clinton: 1993's Hey Man...Smell My Finger contained its fair (meaning mediocre) share of nuggets, but Clinton seemed almost incidental to the affair when Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and a whole slew of guests began to take over the party.
A George Clinton concert tends to render the doubts a moot point, especially when he and his P-Funk All-Stars launch into "Flashlight" or "Chocolate City" or "Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)" or some other funk artifact that never reeks of mildew. At the very least, Clinton proves that when you're ahead of your time, you tend never to go out of date, as long as you never pace yourself against the trends. When you do, you might as well stick an expiration date on the CD.
George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars perform April 13 at the Texas and Pacific Building in Renaissance Plaza, 1600 Throckmorton, in Fort Worth.