Growing up in a bastion of white Protestant wealth, opportunities to hear really good funk or soul music were severely limited. The radio stations in the 1970's were either awash with disco, pseudo-intellectual rock, or vacuous pop music. Everybody was either listening to that stuff, or just as bad, strutting white boys trying to make as much noise as possible while still calling it music. So it wasn't until one fateful night in a second run movie theatre which showed a battered print of Woodstock on alternating nights with The Rocky Horror Picture Show that I received my first real dose of funk.
Okay reading that back I know it sounds bad, but I can't think of any other way of describing what happened when Sly & The Family Stone invaded the movie screen that night. By the time they show up on screen in the movie you've already been sitting for a couple hours and for any number of reasons you've descended into a bit of a stupor. In those days you didn't even have to bring your own dope to get high at the movies as sooner of later one of the clouds drifting through the theatre would land on you head and you'd be gone. Then all of a sudden the screen explodes in a burst of sound and colour as Sly and company burst onto stage bedecked in a bedazzling array of colours and material.
After a few moments of preening the bass starts churning, horns start blaring, and the guitar and keyboard are pounding out a rhythm that wakes up your blood - and that's only the intro. That first time watching "The Family" was a blur of horns and vocal pyrotechnics as Sly reached out and grabbed those hundreds of thousands of people in the dark beyond the stage by the throat and shook them awake (They went on stage at three in the morning). On the original soundtrack and in the movie all you get is a taste of what they performed that early Sunday morning, and even just the medley of "Music Lover/Higher" was enough to rouse even the most stoned of us sitting in that run down theatre. Now that I've heard their entire set as part of the Legacy Recordings' release Sly And The Family Stone: The Woodstock Experience, I'm trying to imagine what it must have like for those in the audience at Woodstock to have that thrust in front of their eyes at 3:00 am.
As well as the disc containing the live recording of their set at Woodstock, also included in this package is a reissued version of the studio recording the band had released earlier that year, Stand!. Like all of their music it contained a mixture of high stepping funk music that would knock your socks off and political messages like the song "Don't Call Me Nigger Whitey". While they didn't play that particular track at the Woodstock festival, the majority of their set was drawn from that album, including their hit "Everyday People", as well as "Stand", "Sing A Simple Song", "You Can Make It If You Try", and "I Want To Take You Higher".
It was that last song that had made such an impression on me during the movie, but now I was just listening to their performance without the visual stimulation, or any other kind for that matter, of seeing the band. So I was a little concerned that the music on the disc wouldn't stand up well in comparison to my memories of that first time watching them on screen. Well I needn't have worried because the live CD is a great experience. The sound quality is wonderful as you're able to hear everything from the great harmonies on "Everyday People" to the power of the horns on "Dance To The Music".
In fact upon comparing the live recording with the studio versions of the same songs I found the latter to be less impressive. Oh sure the sound quality is better in the studio, but this band seems to big for a studio, and it felt like they were held in check. It was like the difference between seeing a horse trotting around in a paddock and watching it gallop full speed across a range towards the horizon. In part that's because of the way Sly And The Family Stone include the audiences in their shows, as you can hear on the call and response sing alongs that they instigate during the "Music Lover/Higher" medley, but mainly it's because when they hit their stride they generate enough energy to power a small city.
It's true that on the studio album one is more aware of the social/political nature of their material because you're able to focus on their lyrics a little easier. On the other hand Sly does make sure to literally spell out part of the band's message during the live show by enticing the audience to spell out a four letter word. As they had participated in the "Fish Cheer" led by Joe McDonald of Country Joe And The Fish earlier in the weekend, you can be forgiven for not guessing that the word he had in mind was Love. However in the church of Sly And The Family Stone, peace, love and harmony were the message.
Aside from the two discs that are part of the Sly And The Family Stone: The Woodstock Experience package, there's also a poster of Sly from the concert included. The photo captures him from the chest up and shows the beginnings of his arms reaching for the sky with the fringes of his jacket spreading like feathers from the sleeves. His mouth is open in what appears to be an ecstatic shout of exultation and all in all he seems to be about to take flight. That picture captures something of the energy you feel from the music performed on the live disc and gives you some small indication of how the band must have looked to their audience that early morning in August.
It's not often that a live recording is able to recreate the energy of a concert. However, in this instance, you really feel like you're carried back forty years to when Sly And The Family Stone took the stage at Woodstock. It's an experience not to be missed.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.