Only four days after the Eagles' history-making victory, Philadelphians may not need another excuse to party. They'll have one regardless on Thursday, when a pair of shows happening just outside the city will compete to provide locals an early kickoff for Mardi Gras.
At the Ardmore Music Hall, native New Orleanian Kermit Ruffins will bring a taste of the Big Easy; at the Keswick in Glenside, funk legend George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic will offer a less-traditional take with this stop on the iconic band's Mardi Gras Madness Tour.
"Our show is like Mardi Gras all the time anyway," said Clinton with a gruff chuckle on Monday, his spirits unhampered by the fact that he was rushing to have emergency dental surgery somewhere outside Pittsburgh. It was a fitting setting given that Parliament has just released its first new single in almost 30 years, "I'm Gon Make U Sick O'Me," from an upcoming album called Medicaid Fraud Dog that takes on current issues surrounding the medical industry.
"Health care, insurance, fraud, all of that," Clinton said. "They make you sick so they can charge you to make you well again. 'Here's a pill for the pill that you took.' Over the years, with all the drugs that I've been familiar with, it seems like the same thing — only legal."
Clinton has seen his fair share of social tumult over his long career, and the man sometimes known as Dr. Funkenstein says there's no better cure for the ills of current events than a P-Funk performance. "That's when you need it most. In '69, it was the Vietnam War and the movements for blacks, for women, for gays. Whenever you get that kind of adversity, it makes for good funkin'. Now we got all of that in the administration right now at one time."
While he promises that at Thursday's show, "we'll be partying like we're in New Orleans," Philly is actually closer to home for Clinton, who grew up in Plainfield, N.J., and assembled the first version of Parliament as a doo-wop group there before heading to Detroit to write for Motown. The wild colors and vivid showmanship associated with Mardi Gras Indians and the city's raucous parades are a spiritual match for P-Funk's notoriously outrageous stage shows, even if the parallels weren't intentional.
"I didn't get till years later that [the Bahamian festival] Junkanoo and Mardi Gras and all that were related," he said. "I just felt the music. But that whole party thing was probably at the back of my mind." The pioneering New Orleans group "the Meters were like our counterparts: we both did really basic funk, putting the emphasis on the music as opposed to the singing. I was drawn to it by instinct, both the dress and the music."
Around the same time that Clinton was recording the first Parliament records, avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra was moving his interstellar big band the Arkestra to Germantown; the ensemble's sequined robes and sci-fi leanings (they claimed to hail from Saturn) resonated with P-Funk's space-funk playfulness, which became so influential that their onstage spacecraft, the Mothership, is now part of the Smithsonian collection.
"Not only Jersey and Philly are close," Clinton says of his affinities with Sun Ra, "but Saturn and the Dog Star, where we came from, are in the same neighborhood."
Kermit Ruffins is nearly synonymous with a more earthbound New Orleans neighborhood, Treme. He picked up the phone on Monday from Kermit's Treme Mother-in-law Lounge, the bar that he took over from Crescent City legend Ernie K-Doe and where he performs every Monday night. "I'm drinking Bloody Marys, smoking a reefer, thinking about what I'm going to put on the BBQ pit for tonight's show," he says.
For the trumpet great, whose band is known as the Barbecue Swingers, New Orleans' music is inseparable from its cuisine, a discussion of one rarely unaccompanied by a mention of the other. "Those things are the main focus in New Orleans," Ruffins says. "Where there's music, there's food, and where there's food, there's music. That's been going on way before I was born. I'm just keeping it going until I expire, and somebody else will do it after me."
While those of us on the outside looking in often see Mardi Gras as a wild bacchanal full of drinking and bad behavior, a lifelong New Orleanian like Ruffins has a different perspective. "Mardi Gras is one of the biggest family-oriented parties in the world," he says. "Everyone knows where they're going to meet on Mardi Gras day and what they're going to bring to cook."
An ambassador for his city's musical culture for decades, Ruffins has been playing since childhood. He co-founded the groundbreaking Rebirth Brass Band while still in his teens, then broke from the still-active ensemble to stick closer to home and work under his own name. He gained wider recognition by playing himself in the HBO series Treme and most recently released a collaborative album with his regular Monday night companion, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.
He said he met Mayfield "30 years ago or so, and we started doing a regular battle of the bands. I always beat him; he never won a battle yet."
Of course, if you were to ask Mayfield, Ruffins acknowledges with a peal of laughter, "he would say the same thing — that I never beat him. He'd say that he won every battle."
Both Clinton and Ruffins forgo playlists, preferring to base the content of their (often hours-long) sets on their read of the audience. Clinton has his own five-decade career to draw on, while Ruffins picks and chooses from the rich tradition of New Orleans music and the wider world of jazz. Both hope to transmit the spirit of the Mardi Gras party vibe to Philly audiences.
"By the end of the show, we want everybody up dancing their butts off," Ruffins says. "That's if there's not a dance floor. If there is a dance floor, we expect to have them dancing right away."