Sly and The Family Stone?! In Boscombe?!
Well what on earth was that about? Without doubt, Sly Stone's 'appearance' at the Bournemouth Opera House last weekend was the weirdest gig I have ever seen. Brought to life admirably by some tight but generic funk-lite from local heroes The Baker Brothers, and then some spectacularly outmoded but highly enjoyable electro soul from the very promising Unklejam, we were then treated to a spectacularly long wait. There may well have been more crew members tinkering onstage (or just frequently just crashing into each other) than there were people in the audience.
The rumour is (I'm not prepared to confirm or deny this in public in case it proves incorrect) that band and crew only arrived two hours after the doors opened, with no soundcheck prior to the gig. I certainly witnessed the late arrival of the tour manager, who was briskly ushered backstage, later appearing onstage, and then bizarrely attempted to engineer the group's sound, with seemingly no knowledge whatsoever of the venue's equipment.
Arriving onstage some 45-50 minutes later than scheduled, the group then essentially attempted to soundcheck whilst performing, frequently stopping to test some horrendously malfunctioning radio mics. Their attempts to enliven the audience were not greatly appreciated ('Sly says he ain't getting on this stage until his mic is right! Fix Sly's mic! Fix Sly's mic!' etc).
This new incarnation of Sly and The Family Stone is essentially a very slick tribute band led by Sly's sister Vet and niece Lisa, and featuring two members of the original Family Stone horn section. We knew from reviews of the Lovebox Weekender and the European shows that Sly himself would only appear with the group for a maximum of four tunes, so nobody could have been expecting very much.
Truthfully, though, nobody could have expected this utter shambles either, and rarely have I seen a supposedly professional touring act hold their paying audience with such complete contempt. Beginning with about 8 bars of 'In Time', ironically played very much out of time, it was clear that this was going to be a bit of a mess. For a few minutes 'Dance To The Music' felt like it captured the collective spirit of the original Family Stone unit, but the group lost the structure and ended up repeating the lyrics several times before finally agreeing to curtail it.
'Hot Fun In The Summertime' was a blast of breezy pop joy, but the band looked visibly distressed, with no audio in their monitors onstage. The ensuing chaos made for grim and uncomfortable watching and the group then somehow managed to make the awesome 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey' sound bland, in spite of Lisa Stone's powerful vocal. 'Somebody's Watching You' made for an improvement, but again it all just sounded too polished - without the gritty rough edges that defined the original group.
When Sly finally emerged, looking peculiarly hunched, listless and zombified (rather like a decrepit Flavor Flav from Public Enemy), his mic was most certainly not fixed. He was virtually inaudible throughout 'If You Want Me To Stay', although very close listening revealed that the pinched, nasal quality of his voice was still very much intact, despite his 20 years in the wilderness. During 'Sing A Simple Song' though, the man came alive in the most bizarre way possible - leaping away from his keyboards, dancing awkwardly across the stage and vocalising incomprehensibly. He then decided he was 'off to take a piss' and promptly left the stage, leaving the band to gamely carry on for a few more numbers.
He returned halfway through a spirited version of 'Thank You Faletinme Be Mice Elf Again' for more of the bizarre dancing, spinning on his chair behind his keyboards, and generally prancing around with a demented, perpetual grin across his face. He returned to the keyboards for a closing medley of 'Stand!' and 'I Want To Take You Higher' in which he veered from the initially vulnerable and delicate to concluding on a note of manic glee, jumping off the stage in the most rigid posture imaginable and then having to be lifted back on again.
There have been many theories posited as to why Sly Stone refuses to perform a complete set himself. It might well be stage fright after 20 years as a reclusive figure, although his onstage antics suggest otherwise. It may have something to do with his recent freak accident, falling off a cliff near his LA home. More plausibly though, it may have much more to do with his character, which seems to be somewhat unhinged and bizarre. There was evidence here to suggest that, despite all the ravages of the intervening years, there was still some of the genius captured on those early albums left intact.
There is simply no denying that this man was once one of the great masters of contemporary pop music. Sly and The Family Stone were a multi-racial collective that recognised no boundaries, whether cultural or musical. Easily the most influential and significant of the acts that performed at Woodstock (and controversially I include Hendrix here), they epitomised better than any other group the idealism of the 60s decaying into the murk and pessimism of the 1970s - although notably Sly and his new family completely eschewed his confused and jaded masterpiece 'There's A Riot Goin' On' for these shows.
This 'comeback' tour has undoubtedly been an expensive farce, for the punters at least, and many will be unforgiving in their criticism of this once strident and iconic figure. Yet there was something so utterly odd, so grimly compelling about this whole event that maybe some will take memories of a deeply unusual value away from it.