One of the best live performances by any band on record, Sly & the Family Stone's Woodstock set remains simply staggering.
As we inch closer and closer to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this August, we’re sure to experience yet another all-out merchandizing blitz from our record company friends at the Big Four. The anniversary is, of course, a PR person's wet dream, with your proof mercilessly boldfaced amid the salacious sentences of press releases not so much written as contrived as pretext for the word “seminal.” Love it (like me) or hate it (like me), you can rest assured the resultant stockpile of box sets and other promotional materials will be luxuriant beyond taste.
It’s against this extravagant backdrop that sparser packages like Sly & the Family Stone’s Woodstock Experience will inevitably stand out. A refreshingly straightforward document of the band’s landmark 1969 Woodstock set, the record serves as a noteworthy addition to the rarefied pantheon of Live Albums That Emphatically Do Not Suck. While this is admittedly no minor claim to make, today even the most cursory review of the band’s recorded performances is enough to glean that, during its classic period, the Family Stone had tapped into a musical vein far richer than those associated with the general vibe of “feel-good hippie funk.” This was not KC & the Sunshine Band nor was it Kool & the Gang. This, as a good many of you probably know already, was the real shit.
Onstage, band members took themselves as seriously as jazz musicians might (incidentally, Miles Davis was a vocal proponent of the group) and an objective-driven single-mindedness became its calling card. Before the Family Stone, there had been tight, misogynistic funk (James Brown); druggy, long-winded funk (Parliament Funkadelic); and afterwards, comfortable MOR funk (Earth, Wind & Fire). What remains so striking today, however, is that the vibrant multidimensionality of watershed albums like Stand!, There’s a Riot Goin' On and Fresh persists with such undiminished brilliance. For all the band’s apparent laidbackness, Sly and this, the finest incarnation of the Family Stone, brought to the top of the charts in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a bold and iconic brand of funk that transcended categorization by sheer force of eccentricity.
As someone who’s grown up with Clear Channel, Live Nation and preposterous knee-jerk lawsuits, I find it’s sometimes hard to envision just how sprawling Woodstock must have been in the summer of 1969. The combined stink of 500,000 mud-covered hippies is just simply unfathomable. Nonetheless, and as a testament to its dedication, Sly & the Family Stone climbed on stage at 3:00 a.m. for a dynamic 50-minute set preceded by the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Selections were mainly culled from the band’s latest album, Stand!, but also included choice anthems in earlier cuts such as 1968’s "Dance to the Music" and "M’Lady." The latter song opens the set with a pogoing salvo of "hey’s" and a quarter-note snare beat that pretty much establishes a tone for the band’s entire performance.
There really aren’t any slow songs from this period, as fans of the Family Stone’s early records can attest. While most bands would shoot for a fairly balanced program of slow burners and big-riff rockers, Sly and company instead deliver a relentless stream of party music, which rarely, if ever, breaks stride. Breakdowns are the main structural variant within the songs themselves, and the one that happens during "M’Lady" is a pure killer. Approximating the genetic precision of the Jackson 5, Sly and siblings Rose and Freddy combine with bassist Larry Graham for an a cappella scat build-up that erupts into the song’s thrilling late crescendo. It’s inside these moments of absurdly assured musicianship that the band’s magic really lives, as each member can be heard feeding off of the collective’s raucous energy.
It’s no coincidence, either, that the transfer of energy seems to be the Family Stone’s number-one goal. As the "Music Lover/Higher" Medley unfolds, for instance, Sly appeals to the audience to join the band in a sing-along. The request is simple enough, and yet with the Family Stone, there’s a palpable sense of purpose, which resonates with as much intensity and verve as the notes themselves. The band’s Woodstock set brims with songs that seek to preach some kind of uplifting message -- to connect and infuse or enlighten and inspire. This, it seems, encompassed the band’s prismatic appeal to hippie audiences, although, in retrospect, its artistry ran much deeper than the free-love/free-thought movement ultimately proved to be.
Among the songs the Family Stone performed that August night in ’69 were "Sing a Simple Song", "You Can Make It If You Try", "Dance to the Music", "Stand!" and, of course, "I Want to Take You Higher". Noticeably, each title is either a command or else reminiscent of some ancient proverb. There’s a consistent spiritual element to the band’s central ethos; one that today’s more cynical audiences might consider played-out but regardless continues to be an inspirational force to upcoming musicians and open-minded listeners. As for Woodstock and its associated madness, music fans can and should make of it what they will. One thing’s for certain: While this particular concert-for-the-ages boasted performances both legendary and mind-altering, you sure as hell didn’t need LSD to get down with Sly & the Family Stone.