A Family Affair

I first saw Sly and the Family Stone at a West Coast ballroom in 1968 when the group wasn’t quite that whole new thing yet, at least not live. There were only a few hundred people there and they wandered around like wannabe lovers at a skating rink, each person with too much space to really feel the urgency in Sly’s demands for everyone to dance. A very good show and one that, with constant reinforcement from those great songs, stayed in my mind until on July 26, 1969 I happened to find myself at an actual skating rink (Wollman Rink at Central Park in New York). Sly and the Family Stone were playing an outdoor show for two dollars a head.

 

It would be almost twenty years before I read Dave Marsh’s summary of the band (“the whites got funky, the blacks freaked out”) but I felt it that day. Race mattered but it didn’t. All that mattered was the music? Hell no, it was much more than that. The visions in those songs came to life--I know they did because I saw them dancing in perfect step with the musicians (and this crowd didn’t need to be exhorted to join in). That show not only expanded my sense of what was possible to achieve on a stage, it changed my thinking about what the human race is capable of.

 

Three weeks later at Woodstock, Sly did basically the same show and it’s now finally been released in its entirety on Sly and the Family Stone: The Woodstock Experience. You can’t fully understand why the hoopla about Sly and the Family Stone will continue unabated into the future simply by listening to those transcendent studio recordings. You’ve also got to get a taste of the live experience. Now you can, although The Woodstock Experience isn’t quite as good as the show I saw in Central Park, and not just because seeing who those artists were, what they wore, and how they moved was such a part of it. The Woodstock show isn’t as razor sharp as the Wollman Rink show, which may be understandable in light of the fact that the band went on at 3:30 in the morning when they played Yasgur’s farm. Still, it’s light years better than that first ballroom show I saw and you might go a lifetime without ever hearing a better concert recording. I’ve come close to doing just that.

 

The Woodstock CD is packaged with Sly’s 1969 studio masterpiece Stand!. Everything that happens on that album is contained in the emotion of the one word title, while the music vaporizes any force that might try to box it in.

 

Thank you for lettin’ us be ourselves. Again.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2009