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Bootsy Collins, funk's star attraction

For venerable bassist, who performs Sunday at ACL Live, the groove is forever in the heart

Chad Swiatecki
Bootsy Collins, who has played bass behind James Brown and George Clinton, takes up the mantle for funk.

There's an expectation or hope that comes along with talking to a character on the order of funk legend Bootsy Collins.

You hope that the man who between his time backing up both James Brown and George Clinton did as much as anybody to make the bass guitar a spotlight-level instrument will uncork a bit of verbal magic without delving into self-parody. That he'll drop a bon mot that suggests just how deeply the funk is ingrained in him as not just a form of artistic expression but also as a beacon for life and how to live it.

So William Earl "Bootsy" Collins comes on the phone, and good naturedly talks about the creative inspiration for his new album, "Tha Funk Capital of the World" and the accompanying tour that brings him to ACL Live on Sunday.

It's all pleasant, appropriately revealing and businesslike. Turns out the album featuring enough high-profile guest stars to fill out the roll call of next year's Source Awards (Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Samuel L. Jackson and Bobby Womack are a few of the names) was made with the intention of bringing classic funk music to younger ears who are mostly used to overprocessed AutoTune-heavy production.

It's a record that's organic and alive at all points, where Collins' old cohorts like Catfish Collins and Womack make room for the more contemporary voices, and where a lightning-rod intellectual like Cornel West gets four minutes of musical backing to riff on the long-term cost of poorly made short-term decisions by today's youth and leaders.

Less focus on dollar bills, more on heart and soul, Collins explains, and it's hard to argue with that. While not exactly the Lord's work, taking as much T-Pain as possible off the culture's musical balance sheet has to be worth something in the grand scheme of things. And if Sly Stone is still mired in some sort of psychotic hell and Prince is OK with putting out middling albums for the rest of his days, then Collins is right there in the lineage of funk and R&B heroes who can take up that charge and have a puncher's chance of getting it done. Still, something's missing. It's obvious the funk still lives in him, that it drives him and he wants to share it with the world. But it's all sounding kind of serious and heavy, and 10 minutes into a 15-minute interview there hasn't been that moment that gets to how intensely joyous and effusive this music and the man making it can be.

Then talk turns to the tour, which at the time of the interview Collins and his band members were still rehearsing for. Collins gets to explaining that it's a feel-it-as-it-comes process, and the record's deep bench of guests — many of whom can drop in only for a show or two at a time, if at all — will make the tour a bit of a patchwork that will require them to improvise from night to night.

That's when it happens, when it becomes obvious why he rarely disappoints.

"The funk is not pre-planned, so we're gonna see what the funk happens."

Does anything more need to be said? Probably not, but here's the rest anyway.

"We'll get whoever we can and shake it up from gig to gig," Collins said. "We're just going to give the people great music. Things might change a little bit once you get out there and you feel what people are into... what they need more of or less of so you always have to change it up.

"We haven't toured like this since 1998 so it's like it's a whole new experience. Once you get over the hump it's just showtime and you just grind it out until everyone falls into a groove. But the people ... they will help us back into it."

Bootsy Collins