There are few musicians who can truly be called great, in that what they do and have done is completely original and has had a profound influenced of generations of musicians coming after them. Sly Stone from Sly and the Family Stone is one such true great.
In the 1960s, Sly Stone created a band with both black and white musicians – radical in its day – and sang big funky songs impossible not to dance to, with lyrics tackling racism and prejudice, preaching love and peace and grooves which imprint themselves in your soul.
For the past 30 years Sly has virtually become a recluse, making only rare appearances a result of drug abuse. At the few gigs the band have done, he has only appeared briefly. Last night, at a chaotic gig at Bournemouth’s Opera House we got the chance to be in the same room as Sly and the Family Stone.
It was a standing-up gig. I appreciate that at standing-up gigs there is a better atmosphere and so on, but my back and feet can no longer take hours shuffling about on the same spot. Nevertheless, we waited until after 11pm for the band to appear. The crowd got agitated and some of the equipment didn’t work properly but from the first notes of the opening song, ‘Dance to the music’ which morphed effortlessly into the brilliant ‘Everyday People’ it was clear why so many people travelled so far to see them. We got talking to a guy from Ireland, and also a couple from London who had made extraordinary efforts to simply witness the legendary Sly and the Family Stone – even at an off-night in Bournemouth.
Sly didn’t come on until part way through the gig and was probably on stage for less than 20 minutes. He looked old and tired, but he was wildly and warmly cheered. We were in the presence of greatness! But even without him, the band was phenomenal, working their way through songs like ‘Stand!’ and ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’. With the recent media furores over the use of the so-called N-word, it was a pleasure to hear them play this and for the mostly white audience to chant along with the groove. The vocalists had more talent in their toenail clippings than most of the contemporary R&B shite currently appearing in the charts, and the brass section added real spunk.
But they played for little more than an hour. And in truth it was not a great gig – the venue was horrid, the support acts weak, all that standing up was horrid, the distance we had to travel was horrid, the weather was horrid. But to be able to say ‘I have seen Sly and The Family Stone’ is priceless.