Moments after taking our seats about 20 rows back from the stage, my partner and I sought higher ground. It wasn't the band. Opening act the Roots strived against the blazing 6 o'clock sun, a nearly empty house, and terrible mixing to live up to their hip-hop pledge "to rock the mike." But an excruciating combination of extreme volume and piercing high-end compelled us to move at once. That's when we ran into Shoreline's unyielding security force. No less than five mulish crossing guards looped an obnoxious refrain in our ears: "You gotta keep movin'/ You gotta keep movin'." Their well-rehearsed, impeccably executed rap effectively drowned out the Roots, called to mind the Warfield's oppressive aisle-clearing policies, and subverted the prime directive of this House of Blues Smokin' Grooves Tour. Namely, an endless party of funk and skunk courtesy of the P-Funk All-Stars, Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu, the Brand New Heavies, and the Roots. But the Shoreline storm troopers would have none of it. We attempted to explain politely that we only wanted to hear (and see) the band more clearly for just a song or two. And there was hardly anyone in the arena, let alone a horde clogging the walkway. But rules are rules, fire codes and all that. So we inched along, a sidestep here, a shuffle there, eventually making our way to the lawn, where the sky was a beautiful blue and the grass abundantly green. Although bearable from way up top and far away, the mix was still woefully muddy, underscoring the sad irony: Sound men have no ears, and the openers on a bill always get cut. Unfazed, the Roots blasted tracks Philadelphia style, as if the venue were packed. They even spurred a few of the faithful to throw hands in the air. By set's end, with night coming on and the energy high, tardy ticket-holders raced to their $30 digs for the next four hours because they knew the party was already under way.
After a surprisingly brief intermission, the Brand New Heavies introduced a vibrant but light 'n' fluffy "Foxey Lady" to bring on lead hottie, Siedah Garrett. Preening and strutting like an R&B sex kitten, she roused the audience to their feet with little trouble. She called this gig with the P-Funk posse "a dream come true," and was pleased to be "smokin' and groovin' " with all of us. We believed her. The band was tight but ultimately irrelevant, because no matter how loud you crank club music, it's still club music -- basically nothing more than music on parade, something that looks better than it sounds (i.e., fashion). And when did the U.K. perfect the funk anyway? The whole thing smelled kind of ... funky, until I tuned in to Garrett's thighs. That's where the groove was going on. Framed by shimmering platinum space boots and a dangerously mini skirt, the singer's chocolate limbs leaned side to side, pumped back and forth. Garrett's quadriceps set the tone for the downbeat, as if directing the "All Night Long" rhythms (a la Lionel Ritchie and his ilk) dropped by the band behind her. Now locked on a feverish groove, the Brand New Heavies came across at once hot and chilly, and, well, smokin' and groovin'. But when my gaze was diverted, the spell lost its power and the Heavies returned to their original gloss, polished but negligible. (Which is about all there is to say as well about rising R&B star Erykah Badu -- a professional and a crowd-pleaser, but not much more.)
Then there was Cypress Hill. As longtime proselytizers of the sacred herb, B Real and his crew of revolving DJs embodied the theme of Smokin' Grooves more patently than any other group on the program (and, yes, that includes P-Funk). A booming bass-and-drums track filled the arena as the lead rapper b-boy-stomped onto the stage amid great, pungent clouds of smoke and an overwhelming light show. The flashing colors and slick video production on huge monitors -- which mixed myriad camera angles, giving lawn-dwellers a post-MTV eyeful of Real's faux Afro and full-arm tattoos -- fused with the thunder roaring from the speakers for an extravagant sensory overload. At times, the show took on such grand, eerie proportions that it seemed like the rumble of an apocalyptic big band. But it was all voice and drums (with some bass tracks thumping from the turntables). If anyone in the house had ever doubted the potential power of hip hop, Cypress Hill vanquished those illusions at the outset.
About midway through, a massive inflatable skeleton, crowned and seated on a throne, rose up like a hallucination amid the dense fog onstage. Thick puffs of smoke continued to surge from all corners of the amphitheater, and the booty-bumpin' was nonstop. The vicarious pleasures of hip hop dazed us for a moment, and then B Real, with monstah spliff in hand, directed a sing-along that went something like this: "I get high! (I get high!) /You get high? (You get high?)/ Hell, yeah! We all get high! (We all get high!)" The feeling of instant camaraderie was so infectious that even the beer-drinkers and straight folks dived into the anthem. Later, the Cypress leader shouted out his props for peace among the East Coast/West Coast killers. Then, inexplicably, the group slammed into a pulverizing "Cock the Hammer," which, for an instant, put a bizarre twist of tragic surrealism on the entire scene. Picture the wiggas and their bottle-blond homegirls from Antioch or West Palo Alto getting down without ever being down, without ever contemplating what it means to be down. Green and purple cannabis leaves floated in trippy patterns on the back screen. The rhythms settled ever deeper into a psychedelic haze, into the kind of grooves you can swim in. And then, blam! It was over. Cypress Hill vanished in an explosion of dank mist.
Even the P-Funk All-Stars were going to have a tough time following that spectacle. Of course, godfather of the old school George Clinton took it all in stride, calling for "Flashlight," a well-worn (but never tired) favorite, as the kickoff track, then coaxing a collective "da-da-da-dee-da-da-da" from the dancing throng. Evident from the way he "conducted" the All-Stars with a wink and a nod of his rainbow-colored tresses, giving up most of the vocals to a gang of hungry rappers half his age, George Cothran's leadership may be more of an emeritus position at this point. Granted, he probably did direct popular characters like Sir Noze and the ever-diapered Gary Shider to slink along the bustling stage front, inducing first-row honeys to rapture. And he also urged the crowd to bay at the moon like a pack of feral hounds. But mostly, the funk's original MC just bobbed and weaved to the sounds around him. So much rhythm and melody wrapped up in what amounts to little more than one long song, reputedly known as the unstoppable P-Funk party. But the big fun at Shoreline shut down without notice, without an encore, and far shy of all-night-long expectations.
Stunned but not unhappy, we kicked back in a reverie (in no rush to join the exiting masses) and watched the elated, sweaty bodies herd toward the parking lot. Almost immediately, the venue's cleanup crew began a sweep of the hill. They stuffed an enormous amount of debris into oversize trash bags (discreetly pocketing roaches and other assorted valuables), no doubt dreading the task of stirring the few scattered crash victims, who dozed on cushions of California chronic, dreaming of funk, skunk, and the endless summer swim that ended without them.