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By Brian McManus
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I can attest to Sly Stone's power as a Me Decade kid whose life he changedalong with metalheads (Hendrix) and rappers (P-Funk), he opened me up to black music and helped me get my freak on. Beyond his late-'60s/early-'70s hits, he rarely gets props for blurring racial and sexual lines in his own band, regrouping rock and r&b into a potent mix. But decades of no-show shows, drug-abuse tales, and lengthy hibernations turned him into a distant Aquarian-age memory.
Then, suddenly, a weird cameo at the 2006 Grammys, followed by a Vanity Fair article that summer. Finally came a head-spinning surprise: Promoter Jill Newman arranged his first U.S. shows in 30-plus years. Prior to this December date, another pair of B.B. King's shows went down November 20, and the reviews weren't kind. ("Fiasco!" declared one writer.) But those pans showed some ignorance of Sly's history: Squatting by his organ, letting other singers take leads, and frequently disappearing mid-concert was typical Sly behavior. Also, the little-reported second show that night had a better rep.
So was December 7 gonna be another Pearl Harbor? Would he show up? Did we really need to see him, no matter what shape he was in? Was the Family Stone really there? To that last question, at the early show, two original members (saxist Jerry Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson) represented alongside Sly's niece (and F.S. member Rosie Stone's daughter) Lisa on vocals, so it's still a family affair. And after a 45-minute wait, the packed, largely white and middle-aged crowd was greeted by a mohawked Sly himself, sporting a silver-studded jogging suit. After a warm-up, he launched into "Dance to the Music," wherein the younger, multiracial band generated some heat even if they weren't as tight as the ol' Family. Sly sang and played sporadically, preferring to let the group sing while he played the cheerleader role off to the side. Still, when he was on, for "Sing a Simple Song," he was in good voice and got on the good foot occasionally. And while he let the group take over for "Everyday People," he was flashing peace signs and stomping around the stage and into the crowd for "I Want To Take You Higher." After he excused himself for a pee break, he returned for a sultry version of the non-sing-along "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," adding a spacey keys solo before dismissing the band and bidding adieu.
Show time: 30 minutes.
The band quickly reappeared, though, as singer Rick Gordon took Sly's part on "If You Want Me to Stay" (ha!) before the man himself reemerged, applying his own gritty voice. After he exited again, the band did an even stronger take on "Higher" before getting into a good, funky groove for "Thank You," whereupon Sly appeared stage-side one last time before vanishing for good. That left the band to keep the momentum going, pouring on the solos with "Everybody Is a Star" and a 15-minute jam on "Luv N' Haight." Kind of a strange set list, though: Where's "Stand!" or "Hot Fun in the Summertime"?
Encore time: 30 minutes.
Decades off the circuit leaves anyone rusty, but was it worth paying a scalper $100? Realistically, what can you expect from an enigma like Sly? One idiot grabbed a mic afterward and demanded "that crackhead" to come back, while Martini defended his boss onstage; an old fan near me noted that he'd never seen Sly onstage for so long. (Via phone, longtime booster Q-Tip later testified for the second show that night, insisting that Sly held the stage longer and stronger.) Truth be known, other stamina-starved r&b legends like Bobby Bland can't hold the stage for a half-hour nowadays. Maybe that's why Stone's evidently planning one-off shows from now on instead of full tours, better allowing him to remain a mystery while still offering strange glimpses of greatness.