Chasing Sly

April 20, 2010

The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman is entitled to his opinion of the Sly Stone and Friends show at Coachella, if you think it’s possible to assess a concert you watched a web stream. Not that he will find many people from that audience who would disagree with him. The show was by no means “good.” Just take a look at the video above.

But knowing the history of failed attempts to jumpstart Sly Stone’s engine, I have a difficult time calling the show either good or bad because it was so revealing. There were details and emotion that simply cannot be seen through a computer display. There were also moments of beauty and glimmers of clarity that would have been obscured by one’s unmet expectations that the show would be successful in any conventional sense of the word, i.e. songs would have a beginning, middle, and end, etc.

After watching Sly try to perform a handful of his hits from very close to the stage, I can say that I saw a man who was fighting against significant personal challenges, whatever they may be, to recapture a feeling that’s been lost, and at least to me, the show had something of a dadaist quality to it, a moment totally unscripted and “unprofessional,” but, in a way, full of a kind of mangled sincerity. It left me with the feeling that Sly is a lot like anyone who has ever fantasized about seeing one of his shows. We are all chasing a zephyr, and it’s unlikely that we will ever stop.

I was at the festival providing daily coverage as a freelance journalist for Billboard.com. This was my personal take on the Sly Stone performance, much of it written just a few yards from the lip of the stage.

***
“Chasing Sly”

The Sly and the Family Stone reunion, billed as “Sly Stone and Friends,” was postponed twice at the Coachella music festival, first from its 7:00pm slot between French chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg and English electropop singer Little Boots, to after Little Boots, and then finally to a 10:45pm slot in a completely different tent, a time that placed them in direct opposition with festival-closer Gorillaz.

Few people at the festival seemed to care. The Sunday headliner siphoned nearly all who had not already left the concert grounds, leaving a small gathering of dedicated believers, but many more with a simple curiosity to see what the reunited funk outfit would do.

As 10:45 came and went, band members started to make their way to the stage slowly, one by one, including original Family Stone trumpet played Cynthia Robinson, though with muted fanfare. They occasionally riffed on their instruments while a stage manager sorted through sound issues.

The warm up had an air of mania about it, a haphazard and staccato preamble that made the possibility of Sly actually playing feel remote. The keyboardist tried to instigate the crowd into a synchronized applause, as if to encourage the elusive frontman to emerge from the shadows. But the audience waited with arms crossed for the music to begin, now at least ten minutes after the re-scheduled start time. There seemed to be little use in getting one’s hopes up.

Microphones were arranged and then re-arranged like a game of Three Card Monty, and men standing in the shadows at the back of the stage laughed and smiled at one another, and exchanged a high five. Could we finally let go of our doubts? I was looking for a sign, but there were many, many mixed messages as we waited.

Suddenly, as if from nothing, the band kicked into gear, a powerful jolt of gritty late-70’s funk, and a female emcee led the crowd in a call-and-response introduction: “Sly. Stone. Sly. Stone.” We chanted, waiting and watching band members look to one another for some kind of a sign that Sly was on his way to the stage.

And then finally, dressed in a policeman’s uniform and a platinum blonde wig that made it somewhat difficult to see his face, Sly inched his way to the front of the stage. His shoulders were hunched into a black sequin jacket, and his hands, which looked painfully stiff, gripped the microphone, muttered some lines, and then cut off the band.

Sly started a rant, telling a story that’s been documented in the press before about his being kidnapped,  singling out business associates by name. Most of what he said was unintelligible to my ears. His mouth seemed to be pressed too close to the microphone, and his voice was muffled by the sound system. After carrying on about this kidnapping — or something, I couldn’t really tell what — for several minutes, Sly then offered the audience some new material played off a CD — bass-heavy disco funk in the style of the Revolution or later Parliament.

But after some short snippets of a few different tracks, the audience started to get audibly frustrated. Without knowledge of Sly’s history of train wreck performances, the show certainly would have had an air of total tragedy or farce about it. If he wasn’t slouched, almost motionless in a desk chair at the front of the stage, his hands frozen and curled up in his lap, he was wandering aimlessly and somewhat anxiously around the stage, frequently in need of assistance reorienting the position of his microphone or toggle settings on his synthesizer.

It was hard to tell if Sly was drunk or heavily medicated, or even under the influence of anything at all at that moment, because in spite of moments that revealed a kind of dissolution of his humanity, Sly showed occasional flashes of raw, immediate energy, and some in the audience rallied around those moments because when he was locked into the band’s energy, it was as if he was beating something — the conditions that have spoiled his past attempts to perform; time.

With Sly on stage, the band finally found itself in “Stand!” The song seemed to appear out of true chaos. Sly sang the first verse and then the band made it through the first chorus, but then his microphone required some attention and Sly sat back in his chair. Once the mic was fixed, Sly tried to stand up again, but then lost his balance and fell back into it. With Sly nearly falling on his back, the band returned to a shambles, and I didn’t think Sly had much left in him.

But then a stage manager, who doted on Sly like a nurse, made the vocoder operational. While the band remained a fractured mess, unsure of what to do or where to go, Sly started to sing into it, noodling with the pitch of his robotic-sounding voice. Something then cued the band to start building a new song, which Sly started to feel, and then — as if by a miracle — he stood up. I don’t want to say it was like something out of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but through the eyes of an audience member, the music had that effect on Sly’s body. Then I noticed Jon Pareles, the boomer-generation chief pop critic for the New York Times, standing next to me, both of us watching and taking notes somewhat frantically. Then, in the long, dark space between songs, Sly’s band found “Family Affair.” Sly found his groove somewhat inuitively, and sang spoken-word verses that segue into the song’s thrilling chorus.

Perhaps all Sly Stone shows should have such strange beginnings. It felt genuinely dangerous, and the risks involved – that Sly might not show up again, or, god forbid, something much worse – made the brief moments when everything crystallized extremely joyous.

“Family Affair” lasted longer than “Stand!,” but Sly ended it in the same abrupt manner. Needless to say, there was no flow to the show. Sly complained off mic somewhat bitterly that he could not find his setlist and did not know where to go. But the band then found the heart of “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” which had people in the audience singing along, and then the same with “Dance to the Music.”

Throughout the show, Sly needed repeated assistance with his microphone and keyboard, as if he had no finger dexterity, and when he sang through a vocoder, his voice sounded weak. But then during “Higher,” as if by yet another miracle, Sly stood up, and let himself down off the stage into the pit, meeting the audience face-to-face, and leading them through a singalong of the chorus.

The energy he conveyed was inconsistent, from withdrawn to the point of comatose, to extroverted and, to a relative extent, physically animated. He then made his way through the barricaded section to the side of the stage, and the played “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” with singing duties performed by someone else.

Some left this show with a shudder, calling the whole performance “creepy.” But Sly did deliver something. He did the very least in showing up. But also by staying with his band through several pockets of heavy funk, he was on stage longer than he’s ever been in recent memory.

A manager slipped onto the stage to inform the band’s key players what was happening, presumably with Sly. Then the emcee came to the front of the stage, introduced the band as “The Family Stone,” and then the show was over. Sly never returned to the stage to receive any kind of an ovation. When the lights went up, some people laughed callously. Others complained of being let down. While still several people in the audience were in tears, and honestly, I can’t say I was totally certain as to why.

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One Response to “Chasing Sly”

  1. Wow. What a beautiful piece of reporting..a perfect melange of first-person journalism and on-the-spot descriptions. The level of empathy for Sly was nothing short of remarkable…I loved the piece!

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