Recording of August 2015: Sly and the Family Stone Live at the Fillmore East

Sly and the Family Stone: Live at the Fillmore East, October 4th & 5th, 1968
Epic 88843023712 (4 CDs). 2015. Sly Stone, orig. prod.; Bob Irwin, reissue prod.; Vic Anesini, mastering. AAD? TT: 3:27:31
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The first thing you hear is not Sly Stone's keyboards or harmonica. Not Freddie Stone's guitar. Not Greg Errico's amazing drumming. Not Larry Graham's slapping bass. Not the voices of Rose Stone (also keys) and Cynthia Robinson (also trumpet). Not Jerry Martini's saxophone.

No. The first thing you hear is pure energy: the nuclear reaction of musical power that Sly and his Family Stone generated onstage on two October nights in 1968 at the Fillmore East. James Brown and his band(s) had nothing on these seven. This is prime Sly, when the band was still hungry, before the hits, before his life spun out of control, the music suffered, and the family split.

What may be even more unbelievable than the music here is the fact that these four sets, released in July 2015 as Live at the Fillmore East, October 4th & 5th, 1968, were at one time slated for release in some form in early 1969, but were shelved by Epic Records when Stone's "Everyday People" became a hit. Not to stomp on sour grapes, but it's mind-boggling today, when the music market is flooded with disposable, less-than-thrilling content, that in 1968 Epic's parent label, Columbia Records, had so much compelling music to release that they could afford to leave this firecracker on the shelf.

In October 1968, the first major American rock band to be integrated, and that indeed included two other members of Sylvester's family, was just back from the UK, where they'd had conflicts with promoters, gear problems, and Larry Graham had endured a pot bust. By the time they took the stage at the Fillmore they'd also written and recorded "Everyday People," the tune that sealed the fate of the resulting live recordings.

Described as being "professionally recorded," this set has the skimpiest liner notes and recording information of any major release in many years. Sly is listed as producer for his Stone Flower Productions. Calls to Sony confirmed that the shows were recently mixed for the first time by Bob Irwin and Joe Palmaccio, and mastered by Vic Anesini at Battery Mastering, in Manhattan. While unnecessarily mysterious, these weird oversights aren't overly critical, because this is a high-quality, three dimensional, multitrack live recording—which makes its 47-year absence all the more bizarre. The imaging is solid, and the sound is clear and natural, with no dropouts, overloaded microphones, or the tape hiss that dogged some later Sly studio recordings, a side effect of his obsessive overdubbing. A two-LP best-of set, its cuts selected by "Captain" Kirk Douglas, of the Roots, was released in April 2015 for Record Store Day.

While the set lists of the four show are very similar, focusing on material from the two (!) albums the band released in 1968, Dance to the Music and Life, it's the second show on October 4 that stands out. Sly shouts the first tune's count-off and the band launches into "M'Lady," which then, without missing a beat, morphs into "Don't Burn Baby." Crazy as it sounds, the whole thing is wonderfully loose yet incredibly tight at the same time. The tempos vary from urgent to downright fast. Throughout, this is a band that cannot be fooled. No turn is too sharp, no curb too high. This is jamming at its most elastic: gritty, heartfelt funk with horns rising to high art. Album-jacket photos confirm that Sly led this wondrous mass of music from center stage, singing, playing organ, and leading the many vocal breaks, which consist of singing, shouted phrases, and rhythmic scatting that can be considered proto-rapping. At one point Sly chants, "Burn baby burn, you got to learn baby learn, so you can earn baby earn," before breaking himself up in breathless laughter.

What seals the deal that this was a band for the ages, bursting with talent, ideas, and spirit, is their astonishing rendition of the jazz standard "St. James Infirmary." Using a bell mute, Robinson plays the melody while the great Graham plays funky counterpoint behind her. Eventually, Sly's organ joins in, but as was usual with this band, the tune stops and starts several times. It's easily the funkiest version in existence of this oft-played tune. A headlong mashup of Sly's "Turn Me Loose" and Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" is a loud/soft/loud-again extravaganza, complete with Stax-like horn accents and driven by the mad-fast drumming of Errico, and unwinding into an unexpected harmonica solo by Sly. It's a cliché, but the grooves the Family Stone generates here are monstrous—you get the feeling they could play anything, make any song their own. While here the fire was funk, by this point they were also a nimble R&B band that was the equal of any of the great house bands that then existed: at Stax in Memphis, or Motown's Funk Brother, or the Muscle Shoals Swampers.

If there's a down note, it's that the might and musicality here are so astonishing to modern ears, 47 years after it was recorded. In today's music, where can you find this kind of energy and excitement?—Robert Baird

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

"Pure energy"? Doubt it. Many performers, esp. in the '60s, rushed tempos before live audiences to attain what they thought would be a greater impact, e.g., Otis Redding at Monterey and the Stax-Volt Review in Sweden.

Took a listen to this on YouTube. Sly & Family was a studio group. Live performance is sloppy as hell.

4 CDs is overkill. A "best of" compilation is more than adequate for most for this band. For die-hard fans, 2 CDs, Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On, should suffice.

(My favorite Sly tunes: Sex Machine, Sing a Simple Song & Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey -- ain't it a reflection of Big Brother owning us that no one is even allowed to say or print the title of the last song? What cowardice, what hypocrisy, what darkness.)