There was a whole lot of rhythm going round yesterday as the TD Toronto Jazz Festival kicked off the party with some of the funkiest acts to perform at Nathan Philips Square. By 5 o’clock, hundreds had already begun to fill the plaza with anticipation for the night’s festivities, and buzz about George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic’s mothership landing took to the streets like an intergalactic wildfire. But before the citizens of the universe could put a glide in their stride, they were graced with New Orleans’ up-and-coming funk outfit Dumpstaphunk and the slick Minneapolis sounds of the one and only Morris Day & The Time.
The sun was shining and the smell of cider was in the air when Dumpstaphunk hit the Outdoor Stage, and despite the late start, the small but passionate crowd began boppin’ with their opening tune, “I Wish You Would,” setting the tone for the rest of the evening with their crisp three piece horn section, beefy bass lines and wah-wah galore. Guitarist Ian Neville rocked so hard that he broke a string right off the bat, but this didn’t stop them from getting down: after all, the band was formed by keyboardist Ivan Neville for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival back in 2003, so they were in their element. From the sweet harmonies on their cover of Rick James’ “Bustin’ Out” to the stellar bass lines on their 2013 single “Dancin’ to the Truth” from a bug-eyed Tony Hall and howling Nick Daniels III, the band got the crowd dancing while showcasing their musical virtuosity. However, their most standout aspect was their instrumental prowess: between call and response solos, instrument swaps, and Nikki Glaspie’s sporadic yet hard-hitting fills that brought it all together, Dumpstaphunk put it all in the dumpsta for their opening performance, leaving a few audience members chanting for more.
The energy continued to grow as more and more people filled the square and the perimeter’s elevated walkway, fans scrambling around to find the best spot for the next performance. It was ten to 7ven before The Time strolled on stage, but that didn’t matter to the excited listeners. “What time is it?” the band hollered, revving up the crowd for Morris Day’s arrival. All of a sudden hype man Jerome Benton flies on stage with mirror in hand as Day comes out in a gray studded suit jacket, whipping out an outrageously large handkerchief with ultimate style to polish up his looks. The whole band was in full suit and tie, but they wanted the audience to know that they’re not hot; they’re just keeping it C-O-O-L. Their signature Minneapolis groove was hypnotizing, the layers of synth and crack of the drum pads taking the Square on a time warp to the 80s, and Day brought a commanding performance full of vitality. “Don’t let my age fool you,” Day tells the crowd. “I’m like a cool champagne right out of the refrigerator. I’m not sweating—I’m condensatin’!”
The Time rolled through their hits and kept the dance party alive with “Oak Tree,” “Jerk Out” and “The Walk,” even bringing a handful of fans on stage to test out their dancing shoes. One lucky fan had the privilege of being serenaded by Day and guitarist Tori Ruffin, who seduced her with an extended solo of raw emotion and distorted bliss. However, Day made sure to show his sensitive side too, coming in with soft and sensual vocals from backstage during a wardrobe change before breaking into “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” his long white jacket swaying as he and the band danced in sync. Day made sure to remind the audience that he is the true master of swagger, calling out Bruno Mars in the process: “’gotta kiss myself I’m so pretty’—where do you think he got that s*** from?!” Closing with their megahit “Jungle Love,” Morris Day & The Time were anything but a disappointment, putting the crowd in high-spirits for what was in store on the Toronto Star Stage.
So the wait was on. The one thousand or so fans lucky enough to get an entry wristband filed underneath the giant tent where Star Child would soon make his appearance with his funky fresh crew, while the rest of the audience packed up against the railings outside. It was a long sixty-minutes, but right at 9 pm, the P-Funk ensemble emerged.
As the band prepared the stage for the legendary funk master, the crowd was already wild with a funky fever nobody could deny. And then he was there: strutting onto the stage plaid blazer and all, Dr. Funkenstein chanted in his gritty, forceful voice: “get off your ass and jam!” The barriers didn’t stop the crowd outside from putting on the moves, and soon all of Nathan Philips Square was getting ill with the funk.
It was a stellar performance that broke all boundaries, opening up with classic P-Funk crowd pleasers like “Mothership Connection” and “One Nation Under a Groove” before erratically shifting from club banger beats and later into an angelic duet by vocalists Patavian Lewis and Tonysha Nelson. There was even a moment of impeccable scatting from saxophonist Greg Thomas, blowing everyone away not only with his vocal chops but also with his intricate and weaving solos on the sax. Yet even with the wide array of sonic experiences, it was the funk that the crowd wanted, and when “Flash Light” kicked in, everyone broke out into a full-out boogie.
Clinton presented his ensemble to the audience with arms wide open, showcasing his masterpiece after years of crafting while knowing all eyes were glued to his every move. At the age of 73, Clinton still proved to be the pinnacle bandleader, conducting not just his band but the audience as well. At one moment he’s stolid as a statue and taking in his surroundings; the next he’s reaching out into the audience to test out what they’re smoking. His idiosyncratic shrieks and powerhouse voice cut through the swirling cosmic fusion of bass slaps and synth lines, taking Toronto to a whole other world for the night through his musical vision. Clinton’s god-like eminence really shone as he preached the notorious philosophy of Funkadelic: “free your mind … and your ass will follow!” As Clinton backed away from the front of the stage, Ricky Rouse eased into the solo of “Maggot Brain” which soon after became a guitar duel between himself and DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, the band building up into an eruption of noise.
It was the closing numbers “Give Up the Funk” and “Atomic Dog” that really brought the house down. The bass thumped with such intensity that the speakers began to clip, and the funk had reached an all-time high. Though the roof of the sucker remained intact, the energy was at its peak, the whole ensemble jumping and throwing it up with the crowd with such stamina that it was hard to believe they had just played a full two-hour set. As the P-Funk crew left the stage, the crowd whooped and hollered in the hopes of an encore, but with a final wave from Clinton himself, it was evident that the show had come to a close. The mothership was off to another galaxy, and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival was left with a little more dip in its hip than ever before.