Bay Area artists pay tribute to Sly and the Family Stone
LEFT OF THE DIAL Looking back with the sense of perspective that four and a half decades can provide, the year 1969 seems almost implausibly momentous. The US government instated the draft for Vietnam. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. John and Yoko got in bed and stayed there; Jimi shred the Star-Spangled Banner. And the Mets were really, really good.
In San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone went into the studio — Pacific High Recording, on a tiny street near the 101 between Market and Mission, to be specific—and emerged with a record that would change the course of funk and soul music forever. Stand! was the fourth album from the Vallejo-bred seven-piece, catapulting into the mainstream a band the likes of which popular music had never seen: Two white folks and five black folks, both men and women, who sang about racism, poverty, peace and violence, sex, and other provocative topics in an honest yet irresistably danceable way. At the wheel was Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart), a charismatic sometime-soul DJ for SF radio stations and a musical prodigy of sorts who played the keyboard, guitar, bass and drums by age 11.
The record sold more than 3 million copies, propelled by singles like the title track, "Everyday People," and "I Want to Take You Higher." It was the apex of the band's success. Three months later, they would give one of the best performances of their career at Woodstock, at 3:30am on a Sunday. By the end of 1969, after a move to LA, Sly and other Family Stone members were addicted to cocaine; by 1970, tensions were brewing in the studio and on the road. Despite producing a handful of other critically acclaimed records, drug problems and personal rifts grew steadily, and the band dissolved in 1975.
Still: "There are two types of black music," wrote Joel Selvin in Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History. "Black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone."
Of the 100-plus Bay Area musicians participating in "UnderCover Presents: Sly and the Family Stone's Stand!" Jan. 17-19, it's safe to say most came of age in the latter era -- regardless of ethnicity -- with popular music that bore Stone's influence. For three consecutive nights at the Independent, nine artists from diverse genres will recreate the iconic album from start to finish, with each band performing its own unique arrangement of the track they were assigned. A record of all the performances was produced at San Francisco's Faultline Studios in the weeks leading up to the show.
UnderCover has been producing large-scale shows like this every few months for the a little over three years, each time honoring an influential album with a different bill of Bay Area bands and a different guest musical director: Past shows have included reinterpretations of Joni Mitchell's Blue, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and Radiohead's Kid A. But Stand! represents new ground for a couple reasons: From a technical standpoint, the sheer quantity of musicians participating is daunting, thanks to guest director David Möschler's 50-person Awesöme Orchestra, a Berkeley-based collective that holds monthly orchestral rehearsals that are free and open to anyone who wants to play.
Perhaps more importantly, this will be the first show honoring a local musician — one whose legacy still commands so much local respect. Recruiting bands who were excited about the chance to honor Sly and the Family Stone, says Möschler, was the easy part.