“It was all celebration, all affirmation, a music of endless humor and delight, like a fantasy of freedom.” Greil Marcus gives this emotionally resonant description of Sly and the Family Stone’s early work in his essential 1975 dive into the ancestry of American pop music, Mystery Train. While writing his chapter on Sly, the effects of the artist’s game-changing 1971 haze-bomb There’s a Riot Going On were fresh in Marcus’ mind, lending an understandable sense of melancholy to his analysis. From this vantage point, the concepts of Sly’s prior output must have felt a bit too wide-eyed and innocent, justified only by the copious talents of the uniquely democratic ensemble that was naïve enough to actually believe that everybody is a star.
I wonder if Live at the Fillmore East would’ve changed his opinion at all. Originally planned as the follow-up to the ascendant 1968 LP Life, the album got permanently shelved after the band cranked out “Everyday People” like it was nothing, topping the charts for the first time and priming the pump for a new studio smash. Recorded over the course of two days at the New York venue in October 1968 (with a matinee and evening show each day), these tapes capture a band about to mesmerize the world with a distinctly realistic brand of positive vibes.
But enough with the “what ifs”. Epic/Legacy has released every note of those four concerts, in a set that qualifies as the first-ever Sly and the Family Stone live album. And while it probably would’ve been best experienced as a jolt of adrenaline to carry us from Life to Stand!, the 2015 Live at the Fillmore East acts as a necessary meditation on the group’s formative material, and its firm belief that earnest positivity could be funky as hell.
The four shows are pretty similar. The evening gigs are longer and more exploratory, and the occasional cover crops up – most notably a stoned, seven-minute jam on “St. James Infirmary”. But the band had clearly decided what songs it wanted to end up on the album, and that means we have to hear them performed three or four times on this collection. Yet the energy rarely lags. There are far worse things in life than listening to “Life,” with its carnival organ and parade-day horns, over and over again. Same for “Color Me True”, where Larry Graham weaves his bass line through Gregg Errico’s rhythm like a buzzing Betsy Ross. And if oldies radio has dulled your senses to “Dance to the Music”, these intensely joyful live versions breathe new life into one of pop music’s purest celebrations of humanity.
“Are You Ready”, a forgettable tune from the Dance to the Music album, appears on all four discs, and it pulses with a different energy. The hook isn’t much on paper. The horns hop up and down a rudimentary scale, seemingly just taking up space until the verse begins. But here, with Rosie Stone’s B3 chords swelling like an electric tide and Errico pummeling his kit with unfettered glee, it slays. Then Sly jumps in with four short phrases that capture the ethos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered exactly six months before these shows – “Don’t hate the black / Don’t hate the white / If you get bit / Just hate the bite.”
It’s as if these musicians were responding to the gathering storm of dreams deferred and war machines unleashed by doubling down on love, and each other. They’re playing loud, hard, and all together, resulting in a swirl of voices and guitar licks and trumpet calls and universal poetry that somehow all makes sense. We know what lies only a few years ahead for Sly: exhaustion, dope, ingenuity, obscurity, Grammy telecast infamy. But on these two days in 1968, Sly and the Family Stone sounded like a perpetual motion machine far too powerful to ever break down.
With these recordings to consider, maybe Marcus wouldn’t have described the band’s early work as a fantasy. Because good lord, is this shit real.