Shows I’ll Never Forget: Bootsy Collins, May 10, 2014

At the LEAF Festival, Black Mountain/Lake Eden, N.C.: “How many people want to ride on the mothership?” Behind star-burst shades, Bootsy Collins beamed at the crowd swaying and dancing before the LEAF Festival’s Lakeside Stage on Saturday night. The audience responded with an affirmative roar. Yet Bootsy, still the cosmic joker at age 62, replied with a taunting and childish: “I can’t hear you!”, drawing an even bigger response.

In many ways, Collins was poster child and patron saint for Lake Eden, North Carolina’s 38th LEAF Festival which revolved around a celebratory world funk theme. (Commencing from May 8 through the 11, 2014, LEAF sold out to 6,500 capacity crowds each day, with a further 1,000 attendees on Saturday as part of the non-profit’s educational outreach program.) The Fest, set in the alpine valley Camp Rockmont — once the campus of Black Mountain College which included geodesic dome designer Buckminster Fuller on faculty and Albert Einstein as guest lecturer — had transformed into the landing pad for Bootsy’s version of the Parliament/Funkadelic Mothership.

It was only fitting, since many of the bands playing the three-day festival, including Brooklyn’s bhangra/brass band groovers Red Barat, West African rockin’ reggae and hi-life crew Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and techno-belly dance multimedia extravaganza Beats Antique are all acolytes of the mighty P-Funk dynasty. Like all musicians inspired by the groove and impelled to slap out a funky bassline, they were indebted to the pioneering work of this legendary collective. Even LEAF’s Sunday headliner the Family Stone’s long departed co-founder Sly Stone once worked with both Collins and P-Funk maestro George Clinton back in the 80s.

For his part, Bootsy acknowledged his debt to Clinton, the musical partner Collins met not long after rising to stardom as part of James Brown’s original JBs backing band. “George will always be the captain of the Mothership,” Collins told the crowd. That probably makes Bootsy wing commander, and he was ably supported by a regiment of cosmic cat-suited dancers/back-up singers and NASA-style space-suited musicians — the crew removed their space helmets before playing.

In many ways, Bootsy’s set embraced the gloriously goofy and good-natured excess of 1970s and ’80s glam funk — squelchy keytar, whooping and whizzing synths, silvery spandex clad rump shaking dancers and Bootsy’s bubbling, growling bass. Bootsy didn’t disappoint with his grandly absurd costumes. First stepping out in reflective multi-colored tux and top hat, he soon switched headgear for a crown of fluffy pink feathers. Later, to the helium-inflected strains of “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” Bootsy strutted across stage in a glittery robe emblazoned with that ghostly cartoon character, before stripping down to a yellow “Bootsy at LEAF” T-shirt.

Collins’ clowning personna energized and engaged the swaying crowd, particularly on the snarky and snaky take down of phony baloney L.A. glitz, “Hollywood Squares.” Yet, his humor was underpinned with genuine emotion. After spraying out zinging synth-bass runs, then popping and slapping ground shaking grooves with his fretwork, Bootsy and crew settled into the creamy soulful melody of “I’d Rather Be With You.” Bootsy’s smooth gospel tinged vocals lent the tune a heartfelt, cinematic sweep, and when he led the crowd in a chant of “We Are One!,” you know he really meant it.

For the encore “Touch Somebody,” the slap-bass master parted the crowd like the Red Sea, before stepping out into a surge of hand-waving, dancing fans. “People say I’m crazy to get out here with you without security,” said Bootsy, “but y’all are my security.” As Collins shook hands and beamed at the crowd, it was obvious that his space walk among the audience was no mere stunt. Bootsy came to LEAF to spread his gospel of funk: We are indeed all one under the sun and the stars. We are all children of the Mothership.

Michael Walsh

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