Guardian intern Aaron Sankin caught Maceo Parker at the Fillmore on Nov. 22. Here’s what he thought:
Maceo Parker blows up. Courtesy of www.maceo.com
If you’re real funky you can pretty much do anything you want on stage. What are the odds that George Clinton could have gotten away with landing a pretend spaceship and pretending he was from another planet (Planet Funk in Groove Galaxy) if he played an acoustic guitar and sang songs about his feelings? Slim to none. But since he is George Freaking Clinton, quite possibly the funkiest cat to every walk on two legs, he has a free pass to dress, talk, and act however he damn well pleases.
The reason I bring this up: Maceo Parker may be just as funky as the prime Minster of Parliament Funkadelic. You’re probably asking yourself, “If this guy is so funky why have I never heard him?” Hey, man, back off -- no need to get all agitated.
You have heard him. Parker rose to prominence as the sax player in James Brown’s band. If you know anything about how the Hardest Working Man in Show Biz ran his band, you’ll know that he packed his band exclusively with the best musicians around (see: Bootsy Collins). Anyone with Brown’s seal of approval is sure to be a dynamite musician. So it’s a sure bet that Parker knows his way around a saxophone.
Coming from that background, it’s no surprise that Parker has gone out of his way to load his band with people who know how to play. In virtually any other group, each member would be the star of the show. And, at particular moments throughout the Fillmore performance, they were all given a chance to shine. Nevertheless, there was a reason that Parker got top billing -- he’s clearly the headliner. He plays his instrument less like a tool than as an extension of his body. It seems absolutely effortless, and it’s breathtaking to behold.
When he opens his mouth, things get a little dicey. It’s not that Parker is a bad vocalist, far from it. He’s more than capable of belting his way through classics like the Meters’ “Hey Pockey Way” or one of the many James Brown tunes that pepper his set. But compared to his technical virtuosity, his singing voice just isn’t engaging. As the set wore on, he put down his sax more and more in favor of the microphone. Even so, Parker put on a uniformly great show -- with one brief exception.
About midway through the set, the band played the opening track from Parker’s 2005 album, Schools In! (BHM): “To Be Or Not To Be.” This song primarily consists of a chorus that endlessly repeats the title refrain. After a while, he started chatting with the crowd. “When I was learning Shakespeare in school,” he quipped, “I thought it was -- to be or not to be… funky.” The line got a laugh and made me think that if Kenneth Branaugh had given this kind of reading of the line his Hamlet might have slightly less boring.
Now this is clearly where this bit should have ended. But no. Parker brought on his manager, a middle-aged British woman, who proceeded to recite the entire monologue, from “to be or not to be” to “be all my sins remembered.” If it’s been a while since you cozied up the Bard, let’s just say that it’s not exactly a short speech.
This set me thinking. I wondered if this was the first time they had done this or if they had done this before and everyone had simply been too polite to say anything. Then it reminded me that it has been far too long since I’ve been to a punk show. At a punk show there would have been a chorus of boos and possibly a cup of urine thrown in her face. I’m unclear on where this urine would have come from, but that’s kind of beside the point. Lastly, I realized that if you’re funky enough, you can even get away with doing Shakespeare in the middle of a concert. Let’s just say that Parker is more than funky enough.