As Bootsy Collins, legendary superhero-bassist for Parliament Funkadelic, was warming up the packed audience at Alive at Five for an encore of “Mothership Connection,” a man in the front row was holding up a copy of his second solo album, aptly named, Ahh . . . The Name is Bootsy, Baby! He held the LP over his head like a talisman for a sacred ritual, as a child of perhaps 9 or 10 stared up in awe. For fans of dealers in funky music, especially one of Bootsy Collins’ stature, that’s exactly what this show was: a sacred rite.
Alive at Five is known for bringing artists on nostalgia tours, but it would be a mistake to dismiss Collins’ appearance in Albany as such, because love for Bootsy over the years has never waned. As a Duffy’s cab driver told me the day after the show, “The man is a fucking legend!” Through stints with James Brown’s band in the 1960s, to the halcyon days of Parliament Funkadelic, to his successful solo career from the late ’70s to the present, his star has shined as brightly as the ones that adorn his rhinestone shades.
Amid a crowd chanting “Bootsy!” to the tune of the eponymous song on the talismanic album in question, the Holy Ghost himself strode onto the stage, cool as a snowball in the summertime, sporting a purple sequined jacket and Mad Hatter top hat. The band smoothly transitioned into “Stretching Out (In a Rubber Band)” briefly before it was time for one of three costume changes. Expertly filling the void created by Bootsy’s exit, the backing band led the crowd through a Sly and the Family Stone medley, while a funk cheerleader grooved at stage right and fluttered purple pom-poms.
According to his “Funkaugraphy” on bootsycollins.com, “I was a guitar player before I joined [James] Brown’s band and I wanted to play bass like Jimi Hendrix.” When he reemerged, Jimi’s gypsy aura rode on Bootsy’s back during the extended solo at the end of “Rather Be With You.” Encased by the glow of a million sunbeams reflecting off his sequined suit, Bootsy switched on the bop-gun function of his space bass and fired a distorted, echo-laden booty beam at the audience (read: He melted every face with a five-minute bass solo).
Toward the end of the set, the band locked into an extended vamp, shouting, “Touch!” on the one, while Bootsy asked the audience to make a lane. “Like Moses parting the Red Sea, baby,” he quipped. With help from a few beefy security guards, Bootsy climbed into the audience with his hype man occasionally adding, “Bootsy touch the people,” to the vamp. For the next 10 minutes the band held down the stage while at least 10,000 photos were taken and posted to the Internet.
Collins’ trip into the audience drove home the fact that funk is a communal phenomenon. Critics have gone so far as to call Parliament Funkadelic, the model of which his current touring band follows, a kind of postmodern tribe. Surrounded by his 10-piece band, Bootsy acted as spokesman from one community to another, leading them through the rites of funk, incanting, “Swing down sweet chariot, stop!/And let me ride.” In the process he united the disparate folk attending the free show with the power of the One. After having contacted the Mothership and touched the hem of Bootsy’s sparkly garment, nary a soul among the audience will ever be devoid of funk again. Hallelujah!